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I was fired 25 years ago yesterday, kicked out with a bunch of talented folks in what the boss called a restructuring because, when it comes to booting people out of our workplaces, we usually apply fuzzy terms.

Firing is not uncommon, of course. It’s supposed to be about inadequate performance or breaking the rules, such as sexual harassment. But often it is determined by another rationale – from managerial pique to financial pressure. Once, if you got fired, it was thought you had messed up. Now we’re less sure. But it still stings when it happens, whatever the circumstances.

As a manager, I occasionally fired people. The first time, when I was 22, was tough, particularly since the individual – who slacked off terribly when not watched closely – came to plead for a second chance because she was the breadwinner. I think I was colder then, or angrier, and backed by a small staff who disliked the individual’s behaviour.

Another time, somebody screamed in frustration at some foolish decision we had made, threw his pen wildly – almost hitting a colleague – then yelled, “I quit” and stomped out. Outbursts from him were common, and as his direct boss I had put up with it because he could produce remarkable work, but the danger of that flying pen and what might come next was worrisome. We had his exit paperwork and departure cheque on his desk when he returned. Technically not a firing, of course, as he had quit.

Sheelagh Whittaker, the former chief executive of Cancom and of EDS Canada Inc. (with whom I’m working on a book), surprised me when she wrote that firing is “beyond hard.” I assumed CEOs fired effortlessly. But if it’s not beyond hard, perhaps it should be, because we are playing with people’s lives and it should not come easy.

Many managers shuffle employees rather than fire them, and that’s a good thing. Somebody hired the individual performing badly – perhaps you – and the talent may still be there, trapped for too long in a job that has become monotonous or isn’t a good fit. Rejuvenation is possible. At the same time, a mistake may have been made in the hiring or performance has plummeted – almost no job is a job for life.

Managers may be the least capable of firing someone because they can be mistaken about individual performance. If you don’t believe that, think of the times you have felt your boss is being led down the garden path by a manipulative colleague and missing how badly they perform. How many people around you do you feel should be fired?

Maybe firing should involve a jury of one’s peers in some way – to initiate or to prevent it.

That raises 360-degree feedback, which can be part of performance reviews, offering guidance to colleagues but also potentially playing a role in edging someone out the door. In Get Rid of the Performance Review!, Samuel Culbert, a professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, writing with the assistance of Wall Street Journal senior editor Lawrence Rout, notes that “feedback is pronounced objective because it comes from a variety of anonymous sources. So does hate mail.” Scratch the jury idea.

Because of managerial timidity in this area, many companies have opted for forced rankings in their performance reviews. Ten per cent or 15 per cent of employees must be ranked as performing poorly – forcing managers into what is assumed to be more honest appraisals – then are denied raises and, in the exemplar of the practice, GE under Jack Welch, managed on to a new career outside the company. In other words, fired statistically.

Just as bad, of course, is when a new boss comes in and starts firing the old leadership team. Perhaps the organization was performing poorly or perhaps it was faring well; perhaps they were competent or perhaps not. The boss makes quick appraisals because he is the boss and expected to take quick, decisive action. Many direct reports are soon gone, replaced with people who just happened to have worked with the boss before, so they must be super-talented, right?


  • New research finds only 7 per cent of corporate recruiters and hiring managers call candidates who were rejected after an in-person interview. No doubt they have excuses for not calling, but there are no excuses.
  • In hiring, look for people who are intellectually curious and consultative, traits of the most effective problem solvers, according to recruiting expert John Sullivan.
  • Worth reading: Good to Great author Jim Collins follows up with a short, thoughtful monograph, Turning the Flywheel, coming out at the end of February. Readers of this column had a sneak peek when I interviewed Mr. Collins for two columns a year ago, so you may want to refresh.

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