Hiring And Firing

When does it improve a project to take someone off of it?


I doubt if there is a manager, in any company, who likes to fire people. In addition, most companies are very cautious about getting rid of people. Human resources departments often put in place lengthy and complex procedures to provide a clear and well-documented path to someone’s termination.

During a recent Oski executive dinner, participants were quite heated in their discussion about this issue. Many people talk about the human economics of projects. Adding staff does not always mean that the project gets done quicker and there are reasons for that. But what does a manager do when they know that having a certain person on the team is not a positive? One participant asked, “What if you have the alternative of just taking someone off the project, off the payroll. Will that accelerate the project?”

Several agreed that if they could take the money saved from that person and use it in other ways, it probably would be an easier decision. Other ways of using the money included hiring someone else, spreading the money around the remaining members of the team or buying new tools or equipment.

NZO – non zero output
As long as a team member is producing more than zero work output, they are worth keeping around. Not everyone agreed with this philosophy, however, because it is hard to be certain of where zero is. They talked about many of the small intangibles, such as having to spread your team across a greater distance, which causes a decline in communications, or the negative impact they may be having on other members of the team. “It is when they drag down everyone else because they are producing terrible work while still getting paid. At the same time, everyone else is working their butts off fixing all of the problems they created, or managers are having to deal with them,” one person argued.

The are several problems associated with keeping underperforming engineers. Some of the managers had experienced the problem where you put your top performers on the most difficult problems and those on the lower portion of the bell curve on the less important parts. That came to bite them when many of the problems were found in the simplest parts of the design. Even when policies and procedures were put in place to attempt to stop this, the risk remained. As one person put it, “You cannot stop fools because they are so clever.”

There is another side to this problem. What happens when you have to fire someone who you don’t want to lose? That happens in companies that have a bottom percentage policy. Here, a manager is forced to fire the bottom performing 5% of their staff. While that person or persons may not have been contributing as much as the top performing members of the team, they still may have had a positive contribution. Their dismissal can impact the remaining team and dampen morale. To get around this, one manager was known to hire someone just before he would be forced to do such a reduction, just so there was someone to fire who had not been fully integrated into the team. “Nobody cares about the new guy.”

Interestingly, one person said they have met very few people who have been fired for incompetence. Of course, nobody will ever admit to that. Another thought that there were many counter examples – people you know who are doing a bad job and simply managed to stay in the position they are in. We hear that in many professions where people freewheel as they get closer to retirement, but I am not sure that applies as much to the semiconductor industry.

One thing that they all agreed upon and strived for could be summarized as, “A small team of good, motivated people has amazing productivity.”


Bill Martin says:

Brian: It is the job of the manager to get their team correctly aligned, motivated and trained. I had a situation long ago where most of the team wanted one individual fired. I worked with team and this individual. By the next focal review, the most senior member of team stated that all raise money should go to this “problem child”. I saw the person that had all the “right stuff” to excel in our difficult and fast paced environment. Coaching on both sides (inside the team) and showing external support (to Sales teams and their customers) gave all the confidence for success. My perspective: managers are looking at easy out for something they could have successfully resolved if they were doing their management job. I always felt I had failed.

Hiring a “throw away” employee is a disgusting practice and speaks volumes to the manager and system that enables that behavior.

Brian Bailey says:

Thanks Bill. Creating a good team and keeping them motivated is, as you say, a tough job. In my early years as a manager, I decided that some of those decisions took too much out of me. Engineers get dumped in management jobs with no training, no tools and few good role models or mentors. I was forced to make decisions that I didn’t agree with, had no control over – but the things I had to do affected the lives of my team members and to me they were part of my family. That was when I decided that I couldn’t be a manager and tried to go up the technical ladder. Nobody warned me about the perils of that either.

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