Why you should fire someone today

Focusing on employee retention at all costs breeds mediocrity. Healthy companies embrace turnover

Unidentified worker holding a Banker’s Box full of possessions

Too many companies rely on the institutional memory of a few deeply entrenched veterans. (Spiderstock/E+/Getty)

Alkarim Nasser has learned that it’s OK to fire people. It didn’t come naturally; like many employers, Nasser, who founded Toronto-based mobile strategy and analytics firm Bnotions in 2008, was uncomfortable terminating talent he’d worked so painstakingly to attract in the first place. That is, until he realized how much better off his business would be as a result.

“I feel like there’s a hesitation when you have to let someone go. You get paranoid about how it will affect the culture, how it will look,” he told a PROFIT 500 researcher earlier this year. “But I’ve realized when you just make the decision to fire someone you find yourself back on track.”

Nasser has grasped something few of his peers have: A bit of turnover on the payroll isn’t the end of the world. In fact, it’s a good thing.

Employers in Canada—especially smaller, entrepreneurial firms without the capital or cachet to be an obvious destination for the best and brightest—are obsessed with retaining staff. They’ll offer bonuses to people just for sticking around. They’ll bend over backward to accommodate individual work preferences. They’ll cram in every perk and privilege they can afford. Massage table in the meeting room? If it keeps a guy in sales from cruising LinkedIn on his lunch break, why not?

MORE: Why Are Your Staff Leaving? »

This is understandable, to an extent; the skills gap is wide enough that even so-called “employers of choice” struggle to find sufficiently qualified candidates. Once someone great is in the fold, it’s only natural to want to keep them around for as long as possible. Factor in the cost of hiring someone new, the hassle of training them and the disruption to business as usual—all of which can be significant—and it’s certainly easier to maintain the status quo.

Easier, yes. But not better. The occasional departure—or even firing—creates healthier and more energetic companies.

Labour dynamics are changing; most workers today don’t put a lot of stock in employer loyalty. (A recent Randstad Workmonitor study found that 65% of Canadian employees would have no problem leaving their job at any given moment.) Blame the much-maligned Millennials, most of whom plan to change jobs every three years or so, if you like, but they’re not the only group driving this trend. Other factors—including the increasing appeal of freelance life among young professionals, as well as retirement-age boomers looking for short-term “career epilogue” contracts—suggest the era of the “company man” is over.

MORE: How to Retain Millennials »

Moreover, keeping the same bums in the same seats is a recipe for mediocrity. While many employees are able to grow and thrive in a position over time, many simply are not. They grow complacent, they get bored, they become disengaged to the point that a new foosball table or company retreat isn’t going to do anything to draw good work out of them. And, more often then not, they start to bring down the morale of those they work with. It is not a tragedy when these people leave, whether by choice or by force. It frees them to do work to which they’re better suited. When the person was a known slacker, their departure can boost the spirits of the remaining staff. And it creates the opportunity for new people to come into an organization, who bring with them new energy, enthusiasm and ideas.

Also—and not for nothing—regular turnover forces leaders to confront some important questions about the scalability and sustainability of their businesses. Too many companies rely on the institutional memory of a few deeply entrenched veterans. When staff are regularly coming and going, firms have no choice but to codify the processes, practices and policies that otherwise live in someone’s head—a step that is instrumental in facilitating sustainable growth.

All of this is not to suggest it’s a good idea to fire your whole staff every year; a healthy core of engaged employees is something to which all companies should aspire. But when someone resigns or warrants dismissal, there’s no need to panic. Take a cue from Nasser and view it as the opportunity it is.

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9 comments on “Why you should fire someone today

  1. Being a boss is not easy and the higher up you go the more challenges you face. A dissruptive employee (likes to stir things up and engage in diversionary tactics) or a consistant underperformer will decrease your productivity and can hinder your career path. A realy nasty one can get you and others fired.

    Termination is never an easy task and there is never an “right time”… you need to keep focused on your mandate and be certain the people you have on you team will achieve the stated goals. I let go empoyees after buying their fist house, a month before getting married, two months after a honeymoon, etc. It is likely NOT your fault that you have had to do this. But never,ever on a Friday.

    The ultimate exec in Canada for being hard nosed is Jim Pattison. I have known 4 people who ran his different divisions. Accountability is a daily exercise. Look at what he achieved. If he had been a “nice guy” what do you think the results would have been?

  2. perhaps this article should have been listed with a Magazine called American Business- Americans, who view firing as if it were a daily bodily function… Sure people do need to be fired- but whatever happened to the days when managers actually ‘managed people’ (instead of always ‘ ‘managing up ‘

    Firms , like those of Jim Pattison’s , referenced below, might be great ROI firms for investors, but are almost always sh^tty places to work, which the Pattison Group of Companies is coincidentally known to be

  3. Agree with Paul’s comments. Yes, occasionally people need to be terminated, but this should be the exception, not the norm, Too often, I have seen Entrepreneurial owner/managers and poor managers in larger companies, terminate people, only to scramble to replace the position and have difficulty finding a suitable replacement. Then, when they do, they lose 6 to 12 months effective time, as the new employee requires training time, and time to acclimatize to the company’s culture and way of doing business. This then becomes a self perpetuating cycle, and over a long period of time the company loses their skilled employees who quit to work for the company’s competion, leadiing them, over the long term, to become even weaker, as their employees don’t have the depth of operational knowledge to compete.

  4. Generally, I am quite appreciative of what this magazine and their writing staff has to say, but this article is so smug I offer this rebuke. People do not leave good jobs with good companies unless there is a better offer, and quite often when they have a good job with a good and fair employer there are seldom firings for lack of job performance as this ‘firing’ goes against the notion of being a ‘good company’. The better offer may not even be more money, but just being able to escape the present employer or work environment.
    What I am suggesting is that this article, by its own amazingly cynical ‘smugness’, could only be the offerings provided to us by an overzealous profit monkey employer. Usually, this amazing narcissist almost always considers his achievements much more so than is appreciated by those around him, and quite personally has been an ‘employer’ far too long.
    We never hear the firing of Prime Ministers, judges, or of Mayors, however, without a doubt Rob Ford comes to mind as one of these ‘tops’ that can not be fired. ‘Tops’ do not have to show compassion, but they never get fired even if opposed by majority of the electorate who will decisively still choose to keep a party in power despite its leader. This well could and should be said for CEO’s; which even if they do get let go get a parachute package that is more generous than most ‘earn’ in a life of work.
    I would say in most experiences that this individual, who wrote this piece, would be far better off firing himself, and letting a way more promising person assume the role. Unfortunately, these individuals, who will never leave, are in fact the fossils who actually stifle the productive working environment they seek to have by simply being themselves. They may have started the company, likely with their dad’s money, but never had to be a employee that had to work for someone else; as they in their entire life never had to do anything for someone else.

    Brad Matthiessen

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