The Elephant in the Room
February 9, 2015
My first real job lasted for three years. It ended the day I was unceremoniously fired.
In retrospect, it was pretty clear I had it coming to me. I pushed everyone too hard. I didn’t tolerate fools at all, no less gladly. I ignored every warning because “what did they know?” And it all ended the morning my CEO called me into his office and let me know that my services would no longer be needed.
Or at least it should have ended that morning.
You see, when I got fired I thought I could still beat the system. Having heard the old saw that it was easier to find a job while you still had one, I pushed hard for him to let me keep coming to work for another two months. Miraculously he agreed.
And so began the great charade. For two months I came to work each day pretending I still had my job and for two months everyone else pretended they didn’t know I had been fired. Even worse, as the time approached where it was actually time to leave, I had to pretend that I was leaving of my own volition while everyone else had to pretend they weren’t glad to see me go.
It was absurd for everyone. As the glow of having outfoxed the company quickly faded, I quickly realized what a bad idea this was. Unable to move on with my life, and given nothing interesting to do, I was resigned to a 60-day sentence pushing paper at a company that clearly didn’t want me.
It was just as bad for my co-workers who had to go through the motions of working with me, all the while avoiding any mention of the elephant in the room. But without question, the person whose reputation took the biggest hit was the CEO who had agreed to this nonsense in the first place.
Since most of the company knew within 15 minutes that I had been fired, they wondered why the CEO was so stupid as to allow this charade to continue. Why was he making them continue to work with someone clearly not good enough to work here? And for the people who inexplicably hadn’t yet figured out that I was fired, the CEO’s attitude was even more puzzling. Why hadn’t he fired me? Why would he tolerate someone with such a bad attitude sticking around?
Only in retrospect was it clear to me that an act intended to allow me to depart with dignity, had exactly the opposite effect.
I was reminded of this story a few weeks ago when I learned that a company I know of was “letting go” one of their VPs. Even though his performance was substandard, he was a “nice guy” and they wanted him to be able to “leave with respect”. So the head of HR explained they weren’t firing him; they were simply going to “eliminate his position”. What a crock of shit.
But it gets better. To further reinforce the illusion that this departure had nothing to do with the employee, the VP would continue to come to work every day for the following month. This was an even worse idea.
To start, there was a very significant likelihood that person would go to work for a competitor, so continuing to give him access to company data was foolish at best. But even worse, just as in my case 30 years earlier, this was a no-win situation for everybody. Since it was obvious to every one in the company that this person was not performing, having the CEO describe how unfortunate it was that the position was being eliminated was met with nothing but eye-rolling.
Since no-one was being fooled by this flimsy story, it didn’t even achieve it’s stated purpose of allowing the employee to leave with respect. And it certainly didn’t fool the employee, who was on email within minutes describing to his close friends at the company how he had been fired.
But the biggest loser in this story was company itself, since it signaled loud and clear to every employee that this was a place where it was OK to sugarcoat the truth. And if the CEO himself was signaling that is was OK for everyone to play along with such a blatant misrepresentation, where was that going to stop? Would it be OK for sales to give invented reasons for deals not closing to spare the engineer’s feelings rather than addressing true product shortcomings? Would finance not want to communicate the true weaknesses in a business unit’s P&L to avoid making a GM look bad?
Companies make a big point of how their culture is all about “bad news first” but when it comes to people, they are suddenly scared to communicate bad news out of some mistaken feeling of politeness or political correctness.
The truth of the matter is that you’re not fooling anybody; You know it’s not working. The employee knows it’s not working. And everyone who works with that person knows it’s not working.
That’s why putting someone on a “plan” is an even bigger waste of time. You both know that the odds of an underperforming employee successfully turning things around is miniscule – you’re just writing the script of how you intend to have them hang themselves in order to absolve you of any moral responsibility for saying the thing that both of you know is true; that is’ just “not working out”.
Netflix is famous for it’s corporate culture, which rightly emphasizes directness and personal responsibility. If things aren’t working out, they are not afraid to say so, they provide a generous settlement, shake hands, and wish the employee good luck. And in the end, that’s the true sign of respect for someone.
And by being courageous enough to state the difficult truth, the most important reputation that you will preserve is your own.