I recently had a very interesting discussion with someone in which the topic of “dead wood” came up. I think I even raised it. This is the issue of staff — and here I’m mostly talking about professional staff, although it can cover virtually anyone — who believe that simply showing up to warm a chair is sufficient to collect one’s paycheck. We’ve all experienced them — certainly those of us who work in public organizations. Unions may provide a lot of protection against evil labor practices, but it seems in so doing they can also provide protection from reasonable labor practices, such as letting go those unwilling to perform the jobs for which they were hired.
Long ago I went on record as saying the most important management decision is whom to hire. I stand by that column that I wrote nearly 14 years ago as being as true now as it was then — or, indeed, as it ever was. Once you hire someone — particularly in the public sector — it can be very difficult, or even impossible, to let them go.
But sometimes, you must. I had my own trial by fire as a library assistant at an academic library. I ran the library during the evenings and weekends, and managed a number of student assistants. Over time it become clear to me and to my boss that someone needed to be fired. I would normally have said that this was the hardest thing I ever did in my line of work, but it isn’t.
One night I had to call my staff into a room, one by one, and let them know that someone we had worked with closely on a daily basis had committed suicide. This same fact had been told to me over a public desk almost as if I had known it already. I vowed then and there to never do that to those whom reported to me, and so as gently as I could, I called them aside in private and spent a few moments with each of them as we came to terms with the news, as others who were as yet ignorant or had already been told soldiered on keeping the library open. There were tears, and hugs, and time spent to individually gather our will.
So yes, that was the most difficult management situation I’ve been in, but it wasn’t a decision. The most difficult decision was the decision to fire a staff member — even a student assistant. I won’t try to say this is in any way analogous to firing a long-standing staff member. That must truly be horrible, and would certainly require a longer period of documenting the individual’s inability to do the job than I had to marshall. But at some point you need to sit down in front of them and let them know that they didn’t make the grade. And that sucks.
But it must be done if we are to make progress. It is when we shirk this duty as managers that we fail our organizations — and perhaps more importantly, the staff whom we value for their hard work and dedication. Because they see, and know. If dead wood is allowed to stick around and accumulate, you can be certain that your stars will seek employment elsewhere.