Manager Basics - Part Two: Termination, the Psychology
Looking back on last week's column, I realize that the title "Firing an Employee" sounds rather heartless. To be honest, it's the one part of running a business that I really dislike, so I always try to find other ways to solve problems before even thinking about firing an employee. However, there are times when there is no other option. Luckily, being in Japan, the soft approach is actually the right approach, so this is what I will discuss today.
Despite Japan's homogenous nature, there are many different reactions to a difficult person being terminated. Some staff will just accept it, while others will take the termination personally and quit before you get a chance to "do it to them", or of course, they may unionize. The only way to get a predictable outcome and to minimize legal fall-out, is to use a consultative and supportive process that everyone involved can see and understands.
In my company, we go for a 3-step program, consisting of 1) a first firm but low-key warning followed by counseling and training, 2) a stronger warning that dismissal could result and close monitoring, 3) a final warning and often one month's notified of dismissal. This program is explained to each individual going through this kind of disciplinary action, and where possible, our managers try to follow it.
In any tight-knit group, communication of radical actions is important, and never more so than to justify a disciplinary action which may lead to termination. Depending on the group, I may just work with the team manager about what they will say to their team and let them communicate it on their own, or in other cases, I have literally sat down with the entire group - including the person being disciplined, and explain what is going on. This is a bit unusual, but the objective is to be seen to be fair and reasonable.
During the first month of the program, different teams react differently to one of their members being disciplined. In highly paid and more youthful teams, people tend to be more independent, and while they will make some effort to help the colleague, if that person is unable to improve, they will soon abandon the person and your job of worrying about the impact of a termination is over.
Older long-term employees, creative staff, and/or those in back-office teams, however, tend to be working for more than just money, For these people, interpersonal relationships are very important, and if they see someone begin the termination process, they may try to close ranks and protect the person - particularly if the individual is socially disadvantaged in some way. Therefore, it is important that you understand this phenomenon and use it as part of the process.
This means that if the team wants to protect the person, then you have to negotiate to get them to accept the challenge of improving the individual's performance as well. I have done this a number of times, and for a Westerner it can be a strange experience. Instead of negotiating with the individual directly, I will instead negotiate the individual's minimum performance requirements with the team leader and get them to buy in. If I can get that buy-in, then I know that the peer group will get the job done. They know that failure will reflect badly on the group, which is worse than letting the individual go.
After embarking on a course of co-opting the team, don't just leave events to take their own course - but instead, manage the situation. Do follow up and be sure to measure any improvements against the agreed minimums. Reinforce everyone's commitment that the minimum performance levels are reasonable and non-negotiable.
Peer group pressure is indeed slower than just firing someone outright, but the result is much better for morale and is much safer - providing you follow the labor law as well. In fact, I usually find that an intransigent employee who dares management to fire him (knowing that most companies shy away from the risk of an unfair dismissal law suit), will surrender and quit if it turns out that his/her group has turned against them after he/she fails to pull their own weight. Peer group pressure is uniquely Japanese in its effectiveness.