Blog: Steve Pierce

Ypsilanti resident Steve Pierce was launching Internet service companies before anyone ever heard the word website (since 1987). In January of this year, he and his partner Brian Robb launched Wireless Ypsi . Since then they've helped several Michigan communities deploy similar networks. Steve will be writing about bringing free wireless to the masses, living in Ypsilanti and his ideas for Michigan's future.

Fire Your Employee

I was talking with a manager a while back and she was bemoaning the fact that employees seem to be getting worse and worse. She kept saying, "If I pulled that sort of crud when I was just starting out I would have been fired."

I asked, "When was the last time someone was fired for poor job performance?"

"In the last five years, never," she responded.

Are you kidding me? Never.  

I asked, "Do you ever return things you buy?"

She said, "Yes, all the time." She had just returned a door handle that didn't fit to the hardware store.

So you are telling me that you made a mistake and bought the wrong door handle, but in five years you have never made a mistake and hired the wrong person?

Now I am not suggesting you fire someone for fun. And there is a big difference between a door handle and a person. If you start treating employees like door handles, the next person fired will likely be you.

But what this manager was complaining about was the lack of fear, and complacency by her employees. Fear is a powerful motivator, but if there are no consequences for failure, then why try? Worse, bad employees were bringing the rest of the organization down.
Using fear to stifle innovation and risk taking is bad. But a little fear is a good thing. If you aren't pulling your own weight you could find yourself collecting unemployment. Fear is a wonderful attitude adjuster and improves productivity.

In the world of a little is good, a lot is bad, don't do what one Silicon Valley firm does. They grade all their employees on a curve, which means during each cycle, 20% of the employees on a project get a failing grade. That means even on a great team with everything clicking, someone is going to get a bad review. That is dumb.

It leads to employees undermining each other and primping themselves up like peacocks whenever the manager is around. It also leads to higher turnover and good teams that are productive get broken up.

There has to be a balance between never firing people and cutting people simply because the rule says 20% of the worst performers have to go.

Never underestimate the power of a good firing. If you want to shake up the organization, fire the problem person.

Why is it that sports teams often times win a game after the manager is fired? I argue it is fear. It usually doesn't last very long before the team returns to its losing ways, so you can't fire your way into being a winning team and not change the things that are causing you to lose every year. If you want to destroy a team quickly, bring in a crappy employee and watch them bring the entire team down. Even a brilliant employee that is a jerk can be a disaster.

So launch the jerk, too.

At a real estate firm, I once saw one of the high-grossing sales people get launched by the broker. Though he led the office in sales, this guy was a jerk. He was abusive to other employees, stole deals, and there was chaos and dread every time he came into the office. The guy was a selling machine but he was a liability. So the broker said that he thought it would be best if he went out on his own, and within in a week he was gone.

The rest of the office was stunned. Part of it was a little fear; geez, if they whacked a top sales guy, who was next? But it also sent a message that jerks were not going to be tolerated. I checked back several months later and I asked how sales were. Sales volume was up and the office chaos and stress was gone.

When I was at my first real job, I was really raising heck over a deal that had gone south. My manager called me in and sat me down. He said, "Steve, I want you to imagine there is a bucket of water in front of you. Now put your fist into that bucket, splash around, make a mess and thrash about as much as you want. Now pull your arm out of the water and the hole that remains in that bucket of water is how much you will be missed."

OK, I got it.

Now if you are going to fire someone one, you have to document why. Work with your personnel and legal folks to make sure you do it right. Moreover, give people a chance to improve. I was glad to get the water bucket story. I was especially happy my boss gave me a second chance.

But when you are on your third and fourth chance and the employee still doesn't get it, throw them over board. Don't turf them onto a project where they can do little damage, and don't give them a glowing review hoping they will move to another department. If the employee isn't working out, fire them. Then learn from the mistake, figure out what went wrong or what you missed in the interview process, and move forward.

Your customers will appreciate it and the rest of your employees will appreciate it too.