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Don't be a wimp, learn to fire people!

Published:Sunday | July 20, 2014 | 12:00 AM

By Francis Wade, Sunday Business Columnist

In Jamaica, we appear to have a widespread problem: we keep employees in positions far longer than we should.

It might be a vice-president who hasn't actually done anything - other than talk - for five years, or a gardener whose sticky fingers have resulted in empty fruit trees.

When asked by other people why the unwanted individual still has the job, a sheepish look comes over our faces that tells the entire story. We don't want to confront them.

Those who have migrated to developed countries get over this problem quickly. 'Letting people go' without reason or cause is just a fact of working life. It's not personal. Some companies do it well, and others do it badly, but there's a willingness to face the music that's emboldened by the fact that you may, literally, never see them again.

We don't have this luxury, due to our small size, which is the first reason why confronting even the worst employee is an uphill, emotionally wrought task.

The truth is, firing someone is like ripping apart a piece of your own social fabric. You might not be as hurt as the other party, but you do suffer a bit.

When your 'Aunty' gives you a call to find out 'Why you treat Miss Matty grand-pickney so bad?', you can't hide behind words like 'no value-added'.

The second reason it's hard is that our peculiar history of workplace slavery infuses work with a need for loyalty that perhaps it doesn't require.

The fact is that, in economic terms, job mobility promotes growth. Without it, labour doesn't make its way to places where it's most needed.

However, in Jamaica, we hold on to jobs like barnacles - equating success with longevity, regardless of the cost to ourselves and others. It explains the mediocre standards we accept as normal.

As I have mentioned in past columns, we hand over enough blighs on a daily basis to blur the difference between excellence and sloth: they are equally rewarded with permanence.

We appear to confuse the requirement to meet the demands of a thriving business with a need to be nice to people. In our minds, you can't have both. A manager who fires lots of people is never being prudent, but is always wicked.

There's an example we could learn from - global professional service firms. These companies, made up of consulting, accounting and law firms, sell no physical products, just the time of their professionals. They are designed to have high turnover, bringing in fresh recruits at lower levels who spend only a few years before moving on.

The rule is simple and universally understood: if you can't be promoted, you are asked to leave. It's either 'up or out'.

It might sound like a bizarre arrangement, but I can share that it works.

On and off for over a decade, I trained and worked alongside consultants at McKinsey & Co. The firm attracts the brightest minds who are willing to work for extremely long hours, which moderates their six-figure US-dollar salaries considerably. They have a long list of applicants, and only accept the highest achievers from the very best schools.

Like a top-class football team, turnover is not only expected, it's encouraged. It is the only way they can deliver consistently high standards to clients.

The reason it works is everyone understands the environment and the fact that in this company, effectively firing people is an absolute business requirement. In fact, almost all my former colleagues have now left, and the firm takes great care to treat them as cherished alumni with special privileges.

This example is pertinent because it demonstrates that with the right context, companies can create employment contracts that are extreme, but serve the needs of the business.

It takes work to make this transformation, but the result can be one that serves everyone in the company, including employees who understand that it's better to spend a short time with an excellent company than a long time with one that's mediocre.

However, in the Jamaican context, who can blame the employee, like Bredda Anansi, who clings to a job for too long, offering obedient smiles for the 'big man' but doing little actual work?

It's the management team who creates this environment. By failing to equate high standards with continuous improvement, and the right amount of turnover, they lull employees into a false sense of security, displacing performance with its ugly cousin - loyalty.

Too many managers cherish loyalty, the corporate equivalent of fool's gold that looks like something valuable, but, upon careful examination, is found to be almost useless.

They need to learn that this habit will eventually kill their business. They must find a way to create the turnover their business requires in order to stay alive.

Francis Wade is a management consultant and author. To receive a summary of links to past columns, or give feedback, email: columns@fwconsulting.com.