Is Everyone Replaceable?

Terminating an employee never should be an emotional decision. Here are some things to consider before making a move.
Posted October 17, 2003
By

Eric Spiegel

Eric Spiegel


I was sitting in my office finishing up some budget reports when an exasperated fellow manager plopped down in the chair across from my desk. He said he wanted to fire his slacking, whining team because they were all easily replaceable. This is after his team had been working 70-hour weeks trying to meet an overly ambitious software release date.

We were all under a lot of pressure, so at the time I found his frustration understandable. But over time as I have heard multiple managers make these same statements I began to wonder if IT managers truly believed that their team members were simply replaceable.

"Everyone is replaceable" is a true, albeit rash, statement on the surface, but we must dig deeper to consider the consequences. As managers, it is our job to take emotion out of the equation and rationally examine a dismissal before coming to conclusions. A manager must analyze the cause of the problem, decide if it can be fixed and then consider the effect of following through.

Although some companies balked at discussing this topic in the shadow of the IT economic downturn, one company that allowed an interview with a technology manager was SAS, a provider of business intelligence and analytics software.

"The employee-friendly culture at SAS is holding up very well during these difficult times," said Nancy Wills, a director of research and development at SAS. Wills' team members have an average of eight years at SAS, therefore retention is a top priority. "If I lose someone, I lose that expertise of how and what we do, the history of software evolutions and customer relationships," says Wills.

So how do you avoid making an emotional decision? Start sifting through the facts and evaluate the current circumstances and the employee's past performance. You may find that you could have done a better job setting expectations. Never assume an employee knows something, regardless of experience level. It is your job as a manager to make sure they have every chance to succeed with the proper tools, training and goal setting.

According to Steve Swasey, director of corporate public relations for PeopleSoft, "If you have an employee who is failing, it is partly the manager's fault for not providing oversight or not having the employee in the right job for their skill set. If an employee is surprised by a bad review, it is the manager's fault for not setting expectations with firm goals."

SAS' Wills also agrees that you shouldn't try to fit a square peg in a round hole.

"If an employee hasn't performed, then HR will help determine if they should be transferred to another department," she said. "I had an instance where an R&D developer was underperforming. He was more of an extravert and needed more people interaction, so we moved him to the product education group where he has thrived in a more interactive role."

Regardless of your own feelings about how to handle an employee's poor performance, working with your HR department is essential. They should provide you with guidelines for performance reviews, probation and termination procedures. SAS' HR department provides these guidelines with a corrective action policy that includes a probation period.

"We work hand in hand with HR," says Wills. "With open, honest communication and strict goals the probation period usually is successful."

Wills also brings up a good point in that an employee who consistently performs well but is plagued by personal issues outside of work is worth working hard to retain. Wills says, "When dealing with a personal issue that is temporary, we recommend pulling back the work load because the employee will be here next year and the problems may not."

After analyzing history, current circumstances and following through with HR guidelines for corrective action, the next step is to consider the costs you will incur if you terminate the employee. A manager must decide if replacing this employee will be more costly and time consuming than making an extra effort to work through the problems.

Even though there are many IT professionals out of work, it still takes time to search for, interview and hire a replacement. Subsequently you have to consider training costs and the learning curve necessary to assimilate your company's technology, processes and culture. Another factor commonly overlooked is the impact on the rest of your team. Do not underestimate how they will view the termination with the potential increased workload and the impact on team morale. You want to ensure your team believes the person let go was treated fairly.

After all this analysis do you still want to let the person go? Not so fast. Just because you can replace someone and the costs are acceptable, you still should not rush to judgment.

PeopleSoft's Swasey says, "Three years ago, because of the hot technology market the extreme was you were underemployed if you switched jobs only three times in a year. We are now faced with the other extreme, where it is a buyer's market for employers. It wasn't right for employees to thumb their nose to employers, and now it isn't right for the opposite."

SAS' Wills also feels that this decision should not be taken lightly.

"The absolute last thing you want to do is let someone go because you will change that person's life," she said.

Finally, as you work your way through the analysis of cause and effect, you may also consider a peer's view on the matter. The stress of dealing with a possible termination can be overwhelming, therefore Wills suggests gathering feedback from a trustworthy peer, but only in a non-gossipy, confidential manner.

As for the manager who swears he must dismiss his entire staff, Wills has some advice, "Take a hard look at any manager who rants about firing their team." In the end, it is best to take an even handed, fair and logical approach to the termination process or else you might find that you are also replaceable.

Eric Spiegel is president of eXpert Technology Solutions, a technology consulting firm based in Baltimore, Md.






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