Saturday, March 13, 2010

Secret to having happy employees: fire the unhappy ones

There was an insightful blog post on The New York Times by business owner Jay Goltz entitled "The Secret to Having Happy Employees". Thankfully, he provides the answer without forcing to buy a book or read a long-winded essay. Put simply, "I fired the unhappy people." And he's not joking. He offers impeccable reasoning for this harsh approach and I have to agree with him.

Personally, I have not spent much time as a manager and thankfully never had to fire anybody, but I have had plenty of experience as an unhappy worker. Nobody ever fired me, but I can't say they did me any great favor by keeping me on as unhappy as I was. Maybe I have just always had the good sense to move on before my unhappiness interfered with my work. Managers may not like having unhappy workers, but managers really love people who get the job done. Still, I partially feel that managers would have done me a big favor by either outright firing me or at least "counseling" me that if I couldn't find a way to get over my unhappiness then I should move on of my own volition.

I have always remembered from years ago reading about the founder of Marriott encountering a waitress in one of his Hot Shoppes restaurants who was unhappy or providing bad service to a customer and he basically told her that if she could not be happy working there then she shouldn't be working there. That made perfect sense to me. I wish I could have personally taken that advice on many occasions or at least if people could have reminded me of that philosophy, but somehow performance and my desire for income have always trumped happiness, for me.

In any case, I heartily endorse Mr. Goltz' and Marriott's philosophy. Specific implementation details can and should vary from organization to organization and even person to person, but ultimately unhappy employees have to go.

Mr. Goltz has a follow-up post entitled "More on Happy Employees" to clarify that when he refers to unhappy employees he is not simply referring to their level of cheerfulness: "Perhaps I could have been clearer when I said that I fire unhappy people. Instead of unhappy, I probably should have said disrespectful (to others, not me), incompetent, unreasonable, undependable, irresponsible, unproductive, dysfunctional (I did say that one), angry, whiny or mean -- and beyond a manager's ability to repair (actually, I said that, too)."

The real point is that employees need to do their jobs without having a significantly negative emotional impact on those around them, whether they are other workers or customers.

-- Jack Krupansky


At 10:37 AM EDT , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I worked for a software startup. For the first nine months I was getting excellent feedback from the manager who hired me. I was generally happy working there - I enjoyed the people I worked with and the job was going well. Then there was a shakeup in management (company was in financial trouble), and my manager was forced out of the company. The new manager had very high (perhaps unrealistic) standards and told us we were going to work “with our balls against the wall.” My assignments changed as well as my job responsibilities and I had to learn different work quickly. I also had a learning curve since this work was different that I was used to, and could not I perform at the same level as people who were junior to me (they were more familiar with this work and could do things faster than I could).

Was I unhappy? You bet. I was miserable. It affected my performance. I was frustrated that I couldn’t handle the pressure of one tight deadline after another. It’s not like I wasn’t used to working long hours before. While I would do anything for my old boss (even worked 70 hours one week for a critical deadline), I dreaded coming into work every day and began to hate my new boss. My attitude changed and I began looking around for another job. Apparently, my boss had the same idea. I saw a job ad from my employer on that had the same job description as mine, but at time I didn’t realize he was looking to hiring someone to replace me. Three months passed and I got my performance review. It was far worse than I expected - I was shocked. I figured I’d open up and tell my boss that I was unhappy working there. Then two weeks later I was fired. The next day I heard my replacement started. I filed for my unemployment claim, and my former employer challenged it at a hearing. At the hearing my ex-boss wrote a written statement saying how I was not working up to “senior level” citing the lower number of bugs fixed compared to the junior programmers. Their argument didn’t stop me from getting unemployment benefits, but my period of unemployment was far longer than I expected. There was a recession going on, and I was out of work for nearly 10 months after I was fired. Employers looked at me as damaged goods because I had to tell the truth that I was fired from my job when asked at job interviews. The rejections just kept happening and I felt like quitting my profession and give up looking for work. The ex-manager never sees what the other side of being fired looks like. He never saw the depression I went through. If he just waited a little bit longer I would have found another job on my own and quit. It would have been easier that way. It’s easier to find another job when you already have a job.

The whole experience of being fired and having my ex-boss fight to keep me from getting unemployment benefits was traumatic. I was terrified of screwing up on my first job after 10 months of unemployment. It took several more successful jobs since then to regain my confidence and realize that I really don’t suck as a software engineer.

By the way the software startup where I was fired eventually went out of business.

At 11:22 AM EDT , Blogger White_Dragon_liniage said...

the problem with this title is that goltz later clarified his definition of unhappy a bunch of mediocre managers went out and promptly fired their overworked top producers...that's ok we have a position for them where i work.

At 5:27 PM EDT , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My previous employment was with a mid-sized corporation whose profits were seriously slipping. Eventually, all-company meetings began to grow more and more dismal and accusatory with the implied threat of firings if people didn't shape up. The CEO used the quote about firing the unhappy people, and people started being discretely terminated. Considering the possibility that I might hit an unhappy spell as most humans do from time to time, I quietly found a new job with less capricous management and arbitrary firings.


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