Talent Management: Don't dismiss, talk. By Louise Druce

22nd Mar 2007
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You can't help but secretly relish the moment when Alan Sugar delivers the immortal line "you're fired" to the crest fallen entrepreneurs about to take the walk of shame on BBC Two's The Apprentice. For anyone who has ever been in that situation though, taking the decision to dismiss an employee is rarely as simple or satisfying.

For weeks up until the decision was made, underachieving employees will have been draining a company's time and resources as well as demoralising the rest of the team taking up the slack. Even if their departure is swift, it can have long lasting effects on a firm as they spend further time and resources trying to find someone to replace them who can slot in quickly and easily.

Of course, there are instances when dismissal is the only option open to employers. In the vast majority of cases, however, blame is heaped on the person who has been sacked when managers should be taking a long hard look at how they let the situation get to the point of no return.

"Any form of dismissal should be the last resort and not a decision to be considered lightly. You need to think of the departing employee but also the wider impact it will have on the team and culturally," says Investment in People director Nicola Clark. "You may find the person is under performing without even knowing it."

Rather than simply discarding someone because they don't appear to be up to the job, she believes companies need to look at the individual root causes of why people are underachieving to try to turn them back into an asset to the company. Then you need to find out what makes them tick.

"People need to be challenged and stimulated at work," Clark urges. "What has gone on that has made this employee not give their all? It might be something external to work or it might be that they have been doing the same thing for so long that they would like to do something different. Ask them what they see themselves doing and where they want to go in the business. You can’t always give them what they want but when you know what that individual is interested in you know what motivates them."

Chris Howe, director of ChangeMaker, a company which helps organisations focus on their staff through discovery learning, agrees. "Ask most people how their job makes a difference in big organisations and they don't know. If you don't know how can you feel pride in your work? Understanding the contribution you are making helps people to get engaged and makes them feel happy and more productive.

"Being heard is really important because then you feel you have some control, and are also being recognised. Even if an employee is doing a great job and they know it's incredibly valuable, it is nice occasionally for someone to spot that."

Effective management
Looking inwardly, managers need to consider what kind of support they are giving the individual according to their particular drivers and why they might not be responding to something they themselves consider motivational. "Be seen to give your all and that you’re excited about what the business is trying to do," says Clark. "People follow the attitudes and cultures that are generated by senior management." Howe also advocates honesty and being upfront with an employee if they’re not performing well.

A recent poll of 1400 employees by Office Angels that asked people about past roles and the decisions they made about staying with a new job revealed that three quarters want to be inspired by their boss in the early days of a working relationship and over half want to be mentored as they make their way up the career ladder. Life balance and good relationships with colleagues also featured high on the list.

After just six months of work, 34 percent of respondents agreed that the emergence of a reality gap between the promise of a job and the reality can lead to thoughts of leaving, while more than half believe previous employers had 'oversold' a role to entice them to sign on the dotted line.

David Clubb, managing director of Office Angels, believes this reinforces the importance of transparency and good communication between employers and employees. "It is inevitable people will want to grow through new company experiences and working cultures after some time with the company, and in many instances this should be encouraged," says Clubb.

He also highlights a phenomena occurring that is dubbed the seven month itch – the point when working relationships are put under the microscope to decide whether employees should stay or go, and something that can have serious implications for general morale and the company's bottom line. He recommends opening the lines of communication between employer and employee from day one.

It's good to talk

Knowing in which direction the company is going, and feeling trusted and empowered to do the role all factor greatly in bringing an employee back into the fold. Regular employee appraisals can go someway towards looking at personal and company achievements, as well as focusing on objectives for the coming months. But Clark cautions that managers shouldn't wait too long to give a person feedback. It could actually be detrimental to the company to wait a whole year to tell someone they haven't been doing something right when they have been carrying out that part of the role in the same way for the past eight months.

Each person needs to have clear goals and a timeframe within which to achieve them, coupled with a career plan to help them grow and develop within the role and with the business. Even if a person has been with a company for years, reminding them how pivotal they are can help keep their interest and spur them on to thinking of other improvements that could be made.

"You talk to people about feedback and all of a sudden they are talking about appraisals," says Howe." It's quite a mechanistic process because it is linked to pay grades and so on. Regular reviews don’t have to be formal. Just sit down with the person and talk to them once a week about what is and isn’t going well and what they can do to change things.

"A lot of managers presume that people won't take feedback and, therefore, wrap it up in fluffy nonsense. You don't have the right to climb into someone else's head and predict how they are going to react. Choosing not to give feedback because you think people might react negatively is not taking on your responsibility as a manager."

Howe also advocates peer reviews as an extra measure to gauge how a person is performing as part of the team, especially as very often the manager is the last to know if there is a problem. "Giving people the chance to talk to each other about what can be done differently breeds honesty into the team and teaches people how to give and receive feedback on a regular basis, which is developing good future managers. It also deals with the issues when they should be dealt with."

There are financial implications of dismissing someone to consider. Studies estimate replacing a person can cost on average around £4000. But Clark also points out more significant losses such as business knowledge, management time, and staff trust. "If someone is under performing there is an impact on other people within the team. It's about whole company productivity rather than just one individual," she explains.

On the other hand, if managers are seen to support the individual and turn them around to get them working to their full potential, the team feel more secure in their own jobs and motivated to do better. And a motivated, happy team means other benefits such as less absenteeism.

"There is no business that can keep throwing money at recruitment when they could be making the most out of the people they have got. If senior management see that as the right way forward they are making a huge mistake. There is so much productivity in organisations that people aren’t tapping into," Clark emphasises.

"It's a crime to think you can just bring more people into the company. They are not going to stay. It's a cultural change that needs to happen."


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By Jeremy Thorn
22nd Mar 2007 23:32

Great thoughts!

Because we live in a populist world, of course we need to be very wary of tv programmes such as 'The Apprentice', 'The Dragons' Den' and any similar.

Designed for entertainment, such programmes don't want claimants who may have their claims far better presented.

But in the real world, let's at least recognise such programmes *are* made for entertainmant? Many if not most of the participants would probably have failed any professionally designed assessment centre at the first hurdle if the core corporate competencies had been properly mapped first and decently assessed, for all the reasons that later become apparent in each programme. And given a more professional infrastructure that is widely available within many organisations internally, or externally, may I suggest they could have been far better supported before they ever reached your television screens?

Personally, I think these programmes are a very poor representation of the world of business opportunity for young aspirants and entrepreneurs. They could do so much better - but maybe their producers' expectations are low?

These thoughts may be rather tangential to this article, but let's not forget that despite the entertainment value of such programmes - we all have vast resources of enterprise ourselves, and more especially, colleagues whose intrinsic spirit of enterprise only needs us as their managers to help awaken and support them?

Louise's article refers to the importance of role models. Quite rightly in my view.

Could you, or one of your senior colleagues, be one?

Best wishes!


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