Imagine a manager who is excellent at identifying and hiring talent but not so good at firing the people who need it. Compare that situation to a manager who does an average job of hiring but is spectacular at weeding out the bad apples in the group. All other things being equal, which manager will do better?

Here's the summary:

Manager 1: Great at hiring, average at firing

Manager 2: Great at firing, average at hiring

I'm going to cast my vote for the manager who does a better job of firing than hiring. My reasoning is that one can never know for sure who will be a good hire because people are skilled at concealing their personality flaws during interviews. Once hired, people feel free to let their inner assholes out. So hiring is an extraordinarily imprecise process.

Firing, on the other hand, is far more objective. Ask any group of employees who among them needs to be fired and most people will turn and point to the same guy. While it's hard to know who you should hire, it can be easy to know who to fire. The manager who is good at firing only needs the cold-hearted resolve to do it in a timely manner. There generally isn't much doubt about who should be fired.

I also wonder if one person can have the skill to be good at hiring and also good at firing. I would think that knowing who to hire requires a high degree of social empathy. The skilled interviewer makes a connection through conversation and eye contact and "feels" the other person. A manager who is socially talented might pick up little clues from an applicant that others would miss, such as arrogance or deceptiveness or moral flexibility.

On the other hand, a manager who is good at firing might be high on the sociopath scale. Where the socially talented manager would find it intolerably painful to look someone in the eye and fire them, the sociopath sees it as just another Tuesday. Common sense tells us the sociopath would pull the trigger sooner and get rid of the bad apples.

In my corporate experience, which included perhaps a dozen or more work groups, I never thought to myself that we could do better if only we could hire some superstars. Instead, I always thought we needed to get rid of a few obvious duds and trouble-makers and everything would flow smoothly after that.

Keep in mind that I never worked in a group that was inventing the next smartphone or doing anything sexy. We didn't need geniuses. We just needed to get the work done.

Over time, the manager who fires best will end up with top talent through a survival-of-the-fittest process.

Obviously I've oversimplified things. But if you accept that firing is more critical than hiring, I will move on to my point.

Given that firing might be more important than hiring, and given that employees are well-aware of who among them needs to be fired, it suggests a better system. As with most of my ideas, it is entirely impractical but fun to think about.

Imagine that instead of managers making firing decisions, only the employees themselves make those decisions as a group. And let's say the job of managers is to set targets for the number of people in the group who need to be fired by what deadline. For example, if you have a hundred employees in a group, and the group hasn't performed well, the manager might say 10% have to be voted out of the group by year end. If the group is performing well, the manager might set the target at 5%.

In my corporate days I learned that coworkers don't have much reason to be nice to one another. But you would be nice to anyone who had a vote on your future. You might even be proactive in doing well by your coworkers because that's the sort of thing that gets remembered at voting time.

I realize that managers already take input from employees on what they think of coworkers, but that turns into a lot of he-said, she-said. And coworkers generally don't say a coworker is toxic even if that is the only word that describes it. Instead, you tell your manager that Bob is spreading rumors, or not returning phone calls, or whatever is the specific crime, and your boss treats it as isolated cases that can surely be managed. A manager will usually give both sides the benefit of the doubt. But if employees make their own collective firing decisions, no manager would be involved to water-down, distort, or delay the process. You simply vote the toxic guy out.

There are already a number of companies who set firing targets. But managers are still in charge of execution. And those systems tend to be draconian because the level of firing is independent of the group's performance.

Under my proposed system, in which the manager sets firing targets based on performance, and employees make firing decisions, you create an interesting new dynamic. Under the old system, if my coworker does bad work it is mostly his problem so long as my manager sees me as a good worker. I'll get my raise even if the other guy doesn't. Under my system, the group has a collective goal of convincing the manager that the firing level should be set as zero. Employees have a common enemy of sorts in the manager. I would think that would be good for teamwork.

What do you think of a system in which managers set firing targets and employees decide who goes?

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May 29, 2013
I think this is fascinating, but it lends itself too easily to a bunch of problems.

For example, I can easily see a clique of underperformers getting together to vote off the guy or gal that makes them look bad. If I get paid for doing less work, maybe I try to get rid of all those hard workers so I look better by comparison.

Also, this system will favor the poor luck cases. Collectively, I could see a group protecting an underperforming distracted single mom, or the guy whose wife died, or the recovering alcoholic, even if their work performance is terrible, just because they don't want to dump on that individual.

That said, the current system also sucks. :)
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 29, 2013
Good managers can make even the most toxic employee a better worker. Those who cannot do this are not managers, regardless of their title. It seems that you are looking at this from the perspective that all managers are pointy haired idiots. At the end of the day, no matter if you are making the next gamma-ray infused proton pack or just helping people save enough to go on vacation, the end result is getting the job done. Increasing capacity, not using less people, is the goal. Firing people is a downward spiral, and if you missed this in the last great recession then you just weren't paying attention.
May 28, 2013
>This will be great for women and minorities! [/sarcasm]

This is an interesting point. I recently worked for a company that needed to get rid of 40 out of 300 employees. One of them was a minority woman who was pregnant, and was a terrible employee. I thought - she's untouchable. Doesn't matter how bad she is, she's staying.
0 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
First person voted out would be the manager.
May 28, 2013
Firing is a very negative action that a lot of people would shy away from. That's the reason most large corporations have large amounts of people (double digit percentages) who add little value (e.g. middle management) and yet seem to survive year after year.

Adding democracy to the mix is not a great way to improve the mood and it creates a culture of ass kissing and back stabbing. Likely, your best people will walk away by themselves if this gets out of hand.

A much better approach is a micro version of promoting people away to some less important part of the organization that eventually gets cut off and fired as a whole for reasons of being obviously redundant. It's a strategy especially popular in Europe where it is actually easier to fire whole departments or units instead of individuals. Basically you gather your undesirables around something non critical and when the time comes you make the argument that the company needs to downsize and sadly project X with the n number of people working on it are no longer needed.

A micro version would work like this: your best people get to hand pick individuals available in the organization to work on their new products/projects. Apply the two pizzas rule (you can feed the entire team of two pizzas), this vastly reduces the need for (micro) management since small teams can self organize.

People in the organization are free (within reason) to join any project that welcomes them. This pretty much automatically creates clusters of just the right people around projects and products. You can judge those by their outcomes and incentivize accordingly. Keep the projects short lived so that you can rotate people easily. This is a form of organizational darwinism that actually weeds out the under performers and groups them around your least critical projects.

Maybe invest in those people through training, coaching, etc. to see if they can improve/adapt. If that doesn't work, you should probably fire them.
+17 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
The majority will obviously fire the guy who brings more trouble to the group itself.
That's the guy who works harder and better, increasing the standard and making the others look worse.

Have a look at this paper: "The curious preference for low quality and its norms"
May 28, 2013
Hi Scott - the issue isn't the really bad performers, it's the marginal ones. Years ago, when Digital rated all employes from 1(awesome) to 5 (on remediation), they eventually eliminated the -4- rating to force managers (or give them the justification) to make sure everyone not "meeting expectations (3) was highlighted. But in any group, he problem is th urge to "trade up" from your (3) performers (i.e., let them go and hire better). I've worked with people who advocated this. The downside is the affect on morale. It can piss off your good performers as well as (obviously) the ones you let go. So which is better, a happy motivated group with a few low-output people, or a group of superstars who feel management is ruthless. That's the real dilemma...

May 28, 2013
Reminds me of this article that I read as part of my LLM (written by my professor in that program): http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1090311

He argues that giving stock options to a broad group of employees and not just senior management is not about motivating people to improve corporate profits (which the lower-level employees could not do anyway in a way meaningfully profitable for them) but rather about motivating them to monitor and call out co-workers who might be sabotaging corporate profits.
May 28, 2013
Being good at firing doesn't mean you enjoy it or that you don't care. For me it's extremely unpleasant, but once it's clear that someone needs to be fired it's something that is best done quickly. When I've had to fire someone it's never been a surprise - they knew they weren't meeting expectations, knew what needed to change, and knew (or should have known) that the changes weren't made. I did end up with an extraordinary team.

All I'm saying is that a manager doesn't need to be a sociopath to be good at firing, so I'm not sure what problem you are trying to solve by proposing an alternative.

In any case, I would expect employee selected firing to either be unnecessary or a worse alternative than the current manager based system.

Just like in Survivor, the worst will go first. Those that detract from team performance are voted out so the team doesn't need to go to elimination. Once they merge teams the incentive changes from team survival to individual survival. This is the scenario I would expect in an office environment. In this case, the most capable is often voted out. That person makes the others look bad - they are too strong a competitor.

So you end up with an average team. Dead weight goes first, but the stars go next. It's sort of a strange popularity contest where you're rewarded for being average.

This is a worse alternative, or at least not any better.

So what if you were able to change the incentive? Align individual incentive with team performance? Perhaps there are bonuses involved with better overall performance. The employees would need to understand and be able to measure good performance so they make the right decision, and also so they know how to calculate their bonus. Note that if this is set up so employees can choose the right person, the manager can too. This makes the employee vote entirely unnecessary.
+24 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
Well, that's one way to make real life more like high school.
May 28, 2013
I think you oversimplify what 'great at hiring' means. It is not only having the skill at selecting good candidates, it is also (and moreso) being able to find good candidates.

I also think you underestimate the power that a good manager (not a PHB) can have on an organization and the individuals he manages. A good manager should view having to fire someone as a failure as a manager.

That said, a manager should be able to downsize when necessary, and be able to do it in such a way that it does not demoralize the rest of the team. The cynical way to do this is to lay people off based primarily on attitude. That is, a good manager will get rid of the ones with the worst attitudes first.

+13 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
Oh and just one more flaw in your theory, it will be a popularity contest, not a who is the best employee poll. Remember Steve Jobs got booted from Apple, and then they begged him to come back.
+1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
This is one time Scott when you are late to the party. It is a common joke that CEO's are socio/psychopaths. But also there seems to be some history to it:
Also remember Jack Welch renowned and revered CEO of GE, from Wikipedia(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jack_Welch):
"Each year, Welch would fire upon the bottom 10% of his managers. He earned a reputation for brutal candor in his meetings with executives."
We all now know more about him after last year's election: http://www.alternet.org/election-2012/former-ge-ceo-jack-welch-doubles-down-his-insane-conspiracy-theory-about-jobs-report

It seems that being a socio/psychopath, or at least leaning that way, works well in our current business environment. Really I think it's always been that way.

BTW, a quote I love but now can't remember who it is from (paraphrased): "If I had it to do over, I wouldn't have been a mobster. I would have gone into business and stolen money legally."
+4 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
There is a new TV show 'Does Someone Have to Go?' (Fox Network) based on the premise where office co-workers vote out the least contributing member...a twist, they also know the persons salary, so they can correlate $$ to effort. It was described as Survivor meets The Office.
May 28, 2013
If your point is that the low-hanging fruit in the employee pruning process is simply to fire the employees everyone knows ought to be fired on a regular basis, point taken. It should make for a better cross section of retained employees.

However, as you admit, you have oversimplified things. You started the post by introducing Manager 1 and 2 but your reasoning about Manager 1 is slippery. If Manager 1 (whether selectively or objectively) really can select the best candidates at the hiring stage, then presumably fewer bad apples get hired by Manager 1 in the first place. He won't have the same need to fire people as managers in average workplaces. Manager 1's workplace starts with a higher quality cross section of employees.

As an aside, you seem to assume that being "great at hiring" is some kind of intuitive social skill. I think you're confusing how most firms/managers actually about hiring - which you already correctly acknowledge is a pretty arbitrary process which has random results - with how a manager who's "great at hiring" might go about it. I would assume such a manager would minimize subjectivity to the greatest extent possible. She likely would apply a clinical approach to scoring candidates and attempt to minimize the impact of subjectivity on the whole decision.
+21 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
This plan seems fine until you watch a season of Survivor (the US version at least).
+7 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
Here's a thought experiment. You impliment this system in Dilbert's office. Who goes first and who is the last engineer standing?
-1 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
I think you just need an empathic sociopath for a manager. i.e. I know how you are feeling but I'm going to shoot you anyway to savor every morsel of pain.
-5 Rank Up Rank Down
May 28, 2013
This will be great for women and minorities! [/sarcasm]
May 28, 2013
[What do you think of a system in which managers set firing targets and employees decide who goes?]

It reminds me of an episode of 'The Biggest Loser'.

In case any of you are unfamiliar with the show it starts with two teams of overweight folks trying to lose weight. The team that loses less weight has to vote someone off.

And in one episode the losing team voted off the guy on their team who lost the most weight.

This leads me to beleive your system wont work any better than the current system; folks will still get fired for BS reasons.

I think you may have something with the two managers though; perhaps companies should have one guy doing the hiring and the other doing the managing/firing.
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