Who Would You Fire?

The author presents readers with a hypothetical scenario involving two employees to present an important supervisory lesson.

A number of years ago, I was a member of the Adjunct Facility of the University of Alabama Huntsville. This campus was not the “Roll Tide” of football lore which is located in Tuscaloosa. It is more oriented to science and engineering, especially because of the research and development work done at both Redstone Arsenal and NASA Marshall Space Flight Center located in Huntsville.

My campus office was located in a row of offices with most of the other faculty having Chinese surnames and a PhD in some sort of applied science. I’m not sure how I got that particular office, but maybe they thought all the people with unpronounceable last names should be put together. It certainly wasn’t because my brainpower was equivalent to the people with offices next to me.

I was asked to teach in the School of Business Administration and specifically in the Masters of Business Administration (MBA) program. I had taught as adjunct faculty at colleges in California and Colorado in the past so I accepted the offer.

This was about the time I started my current firm, JSA, so I had time to devote to the class. I would teach Monday nights from 6:00 PM to 9:00 PM and then most Tuesday mornings I would be on a very early airplane to somewhere. This schedule is a hint as to why I only taught three semesters.

The course I taught was titled “Staffing Organizations”. As mentioned, I had taught at the college level, but not the graduate level, so I wasn’t quite sure what to expect and it had been quite a while since I had last taught a full semester-long class.

I had asked (with remuneration) some of the professors in the Business School to speak at various conferences my firm had put on in the past so I was known to the Dean of the Business School. He offered me the job principally because he knew of my work as CEO of a company called FPMI Solutions which had been involved in hiring the 47,000 TSA screeners. With that background he obviously thought I was very knowledgeable about hiring which made me wonder how much he knew about what a CEO really does. Nonetheless, I took the job. 

I was given a pre-selected textbook for the class which I proceeded to read and prepare a course outline. This took a considerable amount of time.

Interestingly enough, each semester I taught there was a new textbook selected by the Department for the course which meant two things: Students could never purchase available used copies of a very expensive textbook for the class, and I would have to do preparation all over again each semester.

Sometimes the new book was only a new edition of the prior year’s book with few changes of note, but it was still new and required. I did learn that if you write books, and I have now written six, you should have new editions.

My classes had 10-15 students. Most of them had jobs where working for an MBA as a career enhancement. Others had no current jobs and were just adding something to their resumes. I had the occasional athlete or two which I was asked to take because of their training schedules even though they were not in the graduate program.

I learned very early on how to pick out the hockey player (teeth), the basketball player (couldn’t fit in the desks) and the baseball player (who thought he only had to show up to pass). Only the basketball player made it through the class and actually was a very good student.

I had a few foreign students who worked at a large Samsung Plant in town. Some of them did not understand why they had to write the required term paper in English. The answer was very simple – my Korean was very bad to non-existent.

The class was oriented toward private sector hiring even though there were usually a few federal employees in each of the classes based on the heavy federal employee presence at Redstone Arsenal and NASA. 

The idea of the class was that if you had an MBA you should understand the hiring process. In a nutshell, it covered the laws related to job discrimination and the various philosophies about how to make selections for positions. It was not a class on how to actually conduct staffing, but instead covered what an executive should know about how hiring is done, making good hiring decisions and the pitfalls if it’s not done correctly. 

As a labor and employment lawyer, teaching the law about avoiding discrimination in hiring was the easy part. It was not so easy for the class though because many of them had never been exposed to the discrimination laws that impact employment decisions. However, these could be learned.

The more critical part of the class was how to make decisions on who to hire or who to fire. The complement to making good hiring decisions is making good firing decisions. Processes can be taught, but teaching judgment is not as easy.

Who Would You Fire?

To this end, I started each class setting up a hypothetical scenario as follows:

You have two employees who work for you who essentially do the same function. 

The first employee has been with the company for 25 years and has been an important part of its development and success. This employee was one of the first employees hired. The employee does not set the world on fire but has been rock solid and has supported the company through good times and bad, even when wage cuts were required in very bad times.

Up until last year, the employee’s performance was always excellent. However, for the last year, the employee’s performance has been slipping badly. The employee’s spouse has terminal cancer and the employee has been involved in numerous doctor’s visits, been on extended leave, and at times has been distracted when actually at work. The employee is not anywhere near ready for retirement because the employee is in his early fifties and the company does not have an early retirement program. You have supervised this employee for over 15 years.

The second employee has been with the company for just two years. This employee is approximately 25 years younger than the first employee.

In the estimation of management, this employee is the best new employee the company has ever had. Also, in the eyes of senior management, the employee’s potential is unlimited.

This employee has benefited greatly from mentoring by the first employee. Unknown to management, this employee has been contacted by headhunters for a possible job with a significant increase in pay on the West Coast where the employee has always wanted to live. 

You are the supervisor of these two employees. You just received word that based on a management review you must eliminate one of these two positions. All the company’s employees are watching to see what happens. The question is, “Who do You Fire?” 

In each class, this question was put to a hand vote. Would you fire the 25-year employee or the employee who has been with the company a little over 2 years?

Overwhelmingly, the classes, with one exception, voted to let the 25-year employee go and keep the 2-year employee. The only exception was a student who worked for the Boys and Girls Clubs of Alabama who had a very different view of the world. 

When individuals in the class were questioned as to why they would fire the 25-year employee, the answers were varied but somewhat consistent. The universal answer was that the company should keep the best performer and it owed nothing to the 25-year employee. Most of the students identified with the young employee and could not identify with the 25-year employee. They could see themselves as the up-and-coming new employee. Some were compassionate towards the employee’s predicament but that did not change their decision.

The classes were then asked a follow-up question. Now the 25-year employee is your father or your mother – who would you fire now? Surprisingly about half the students in the classes would still fire their own parents. 

There is not space here to talk about all the issues that were discussed in this scenario as the class progressed and how to deal with this in a real situation. While an easy solution is to fire the 25-year employee, the real question is what kind of company and supervisor you want to be. Every workplace has a culture that is made up of all the employees’ and manager’s experiences and attitudes. These experiences and attitudes are often the result of management’s philosophy of managing the workplace.

When you think of this scenario: “Who Would You Fire?”, it is most important to ponder these questions: why would you choose one over the other, and what effect would this decision have on your workplace?

About the Author

Joe Swerdzewski, former General Counsel of the FLRA & owner of JSA LLC is the author of The Essential Guide to Federal Labor Relations, A Guide to Successful Federal Sector Collective Bargaining, etc. For more info on JSA’s services, email info@jsafed.com or subscribe to JSA’s newsletter.