Ken Burns’s documentary The Tenth Inning artfully chronicles the history of Major League Baseball from 1994 (picking up where his original Baseball left off) to 2010. One segment of the film covers baseball’s “steroid era,” including fans’ mixture of ambivalence and cynicism as a chemically enhanced Barry Bonds chased and surpassed Hank Aaron’s all-time home run record in 2006. “The whole thing was a joyless march to the inevitable,” as Bob Costas put it.
Costas’s colorful turn of phrase – “joyless march to the inevitable” – stuck in my head. The expression reminds me of a phenomenon I see all too often: employers needlessly putting off the termination of an employee who needs to go. I understand why employers do this—avoiding unpleasantness, procrastination, unfounded hope the employee will “turn it around,” slack managers who neglect to pave the way for a clean discharge, etc. Yet I still ask myself, why do employers do this?
Let’s move on from baseball to another Ken Burns documentary topic, the Civil War. Union General George McClellan was much-maligned for his failure to take action. His critics, including President Lincoln, believed he was too cautious and made excuses for not engaging the enemy when the time was right. McClellan had the chance to capture Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s army and end the war in 1862, but he delayed and let Lee escape, resulting in three more years of bloody conflict. Lincoln famously said that McClellan suffered from a case of “the slows,” and he relieved him of his command.
The lesson here, of course, is that inaction, when action is necessary, can have unfortunate consequences. Don’t get me wrong—I’m not saying managers should hastily make and execute firing decisions on the spot. But all too often honest evaluations or tough employment decisions are back-burnered for no good reason. The resulting march to the inevitable negatively impacts everyone involved. The employee is unhappy, and the poor performance or bad behavior does not improve or worsens. Life is miserable for the manager and coworkers. The longer it festers, the worse it gets. Things go from bad to worse when the employee starts documenting every detail of the work day to try to build a lawsuit. Or, worse yet, the employee preemptively strikes with a discrimination, harassment, or workers-compensation claim, thus setting the employer up for a retaliation claim. In short, an otherwise-clean discharge can get messy if you wait too long to pull the trigger.
Don't take this advice as a suggestion to throw caution to the wind. Before firing an employee, always make sure you know the facts, do a risk assessment, ensure that discharge is consistent with your policies and treatment of other employees, and satisfy yourself that performance and behavior can't be improved through more training or lesser discipline. But once you decide it's time for the employee to go, it's time for the employee to go!