With all the thinking I’ve been doing about how we hire people and work to improve our companies (see my previous two columns), it was perhaps inevitable that my thoughts would eventually shift to the other end of the employment relationship. The manner in which people and companies part ways. 

One odd thing that occurred to me was the sheer number of synonyms and jargon-y terms we have for ending employment. There appear to be dozens.

I suspect we’ve come up with so many euphemisms because it’s such an uncomfortable and unpleasant topic and experience. I mean, unless you’re a certain former reality show personality, I don’t think most folks actually enjoy firing people. When publicly announced, the company is also admitting failure.

Now, there is no professional advice here. There are a variety of ways and levels at which people are employed, not to mention how employment law varies from place to place. I am not a lawyer. 

Most employee terminations are reactive. Something is wrong, and has become bad enough that there are no other choices left. The issues can’t be ignored, and/or all efforts to improve performance or behaviour have failed. 

Terminations can also, of course, be proactive, but it’s a lot less common. As noted, it’s not something we tend to want to do. Companies usually need all hands on deck, and it seems counterintuitive if there’s not something overtly wrong at a company. 

It’s unfortunate, as many don’t recognize the disproportionate amount of damage and negative influence a toxic employee can leave in their wake if not dealt with promptly. Coworkers who have to deal with such people day-to-day are well aware, though. 

On the flip side, layoffs tend to be harder than firings – while still sometimes necessary – because those affected haven’t done anything wrong and are valuable to the team. It’s just that the company can’t support its current size, or won’t be able to soon. 

However, while firing a toxic employee can bring relief to the rest of the team and management and improve productivity and morale, layoffs don’t really result in that. 

It’s depressing to see your friends and coworkers get walked out. Everyone left remains on edge, wondering when the next round of layoffs might be and if they’ll be included. Fewer people also have to take on considerably more work, with which they may not be familiar.

There’ve been plenty of stories over the last few years of workplaces where racism, sexism, and other marginalizing issues have disproportionately affected more junior staff. As often as not those affected end up leaving or being pushed out instead of the organization addressing systemic issues. 

If money’s being made and the people in power aren’t personally affected, unfortunately it’s not uncommon that they won’t focus on those issues. 

Even where concerns and reports are legitimate and provable, it takes a mountain of evidence, documentation and “steps taken” before a lot of companies are ready to proceed with (or feel like they have no choice) terminating problematic staff – unless the employee has done something blatantly criminal to the obvious detriment of the company.

It is possible for someone to end up in a role, via various routes, where they just don’t have the experience, skills, or competence to do well. It could have been a misjudgement in hiring, a promotion based on seniority or favour rather than merit, or just someone whose efforts were fine for some time, but they couldn’t keep up as the company grew and changed.

Now, often in such cases there are efforts to try and improve the person’s performance with mentorship, training, and/or specific improvement plans. The person is likely trying, no one wants to lose headcount, and hiring is a major time and resource draw away from the day-to-day business.

But these efforts don’t always work. In small companies particularly, everyone typically has more than enough to do without the burden of trying to fix a fellow employee (or do their job). And there may not always be another role available that better suits their abilities. Which leaves one logical option.

Perhaps counterintuitively, I have to wonder if we could run and grow businesses that are better for humans by thinking of business through a less human lens. At least from one perspective.

Sure, companies are made up of people – they’re how the work gets done. But people come with feelings, relationships, politics …. It gets messy quickly and can cloud broader issues.

But consider, if the company was a machine, and a part was worn or broken, it would be removed and replaced with one that worked. We wouldn’t try to ignore it until the machine blew up and business ground to a halt because we just sat there obsessing over (or ignoring) a part we knew was broken.

But depriving someone of their livelihood sucks. So it’s common to delay acknowledging the problem and acting on necessary change when the parts are people, no matter how badly they’re causing things to grind and smoke. 

Extending the analogy, when all the parts are working well and the machine is maintained, it runs smoothly. And so it goes for humans and the companies they work for. When people work hard, are managed well, and respect each other, they tend to be happier and more productive at work. They stick around. The companies tend to do well, too.

It comes down to leadership – which isn’t the same as management – to determine when to stay the course and when someone has to go.

It comes down to what a company actually values. Is the odd microaggression or inappropriate comment okay to let slide if no one’s made a formal complaint to HR? If the culprit is your most senior developer or the salesperson who brings in record revenue?

These things might seem only occasional and not a big deal if they’re not directed at you. But over time and as the company grows, so does the spread and impact of such behaviours. 

The company will likely lose staff who choose to “pursue other opportunities” rather than put up with a toxic workplace, particularly if those who could address it don’t appear to care. And some of that behaviour might start to bleed outward and affect your partners or customers.

At what point does it become a big deal? When revenues start to drop? When you notice that you’re having a hard time hiring? When there’s a big media exposé?

When companies actually demonstrate what they value, it may not make them immune to layoffs or necessary terminations. But if layoffs or terminations become necessary, and companies do them swiftly, honestly, and respectfully, they then can focus on taking care of the remaining team and the business. No euphemisms needed.

M-Theory is an opinion column by Melanie Baker. Opinions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Communitech. Melle can be reached on Twitter at @melle or by email at me@melle.ca.

Photo by Florian Schmetz on Unsplash