Category Archives: Business Ethics

The Secret to the Joy of Firing Someone

How to make firing someone cathartic for you and the one fired

Donald Trump may take perverse joy in scowling “You’re fired!!” on his mindless reality show, The Apprentice, but unremorsefully humiliating an employee is not a perk for being boss, it’s an imbecilic caricature of what a businessman should be.

The truth is that the process of involuntarily terminating someone’s employment can be Trumpdistressing for both the terminator and terminated. Unless the firing is “for cause,” who among us can feel good about putting a person – usually with a dependent family – on the unemployment lines? What sense of fear and uncertainty washes over a person who comes to work in the morning with a job and goes home at night without one?

I was fortunate in my business career not to have to fire a large number of people before I learned how to do it the right way. The experience used to be just as traumatic for me as it was for the person being terminated. Even when it was clear that a person was not performing up to acceptable levels, I would fuss and fret, delay and rationalize the decision until it became an unnecessarily painful event for the employee and me.

The HR Rulebook Teaches the Legal Way to Fire, but not the Right Way

The beloved HR people and their loathsome lawyers feed you all the “dos and don’ts” when it comes to firing an employee, but these are just techniques and processes designed to ward off office upheaval and litigation. They will counsel you to do it yourself, do it in person, have a checklist, don’t sugarcoat your words, follow company procedure, document the process and, believe it or not, have a lawyer present.

These are all good recommendations when the intent is to protect the company and head off a lawsuit, but they also seem predicated on the assumption that the action will come as a complete surprise to the employee. Notably lacking in this scenario is any indication of compassion or concern for the employee. It’s no wonder, then, that the typical firing is so often a downer for all concerned to say nothing of the terrible message it sends to other employees.

My contention is that firing an employee does not have to be that way. Sure, it’s important to protect you and the company against unwarranted litigation over the firing, but it is also possible to fire someone with compassion and understanding that, at the very least, will take the edge off the process. Believe it or not, it may even be possible to make termination a positive experience for all concerned.

Two steps to successful firing

It was only after I learned two important principles that the process of terminating an individual’s employment became a palatable, if not positive experience.

First of all, if the person being terminated was surprised by my action, it was my fault. I deserved to feel bad. It meant that I had failed as a manager to consistently and effectively communicate my dissatisfaction – using specific examples – with the individual’s performance. I learned early on that people could not read my mind or even my body language concerning their performance on the job. It may have been clear in my mind that the individual was not doing the job, but unless I made my impressions very clear to the employee, I was failing in my responsibility and should not have been surprised that they were surprised when they were fired.

Once I understood and accepted this responsibility to the employee and the time came to sit down and pull the trigger on the firing, there was no surprise on the part of either party. I may not have looked forward to firing the employee, but I no longer felt guilty about the process.

The second principle to successful firing may seem counterintuitive, but it is perhaps the most important element to creating a positive environment in the entire process. I discovered that many individuals who deserve to be fired are actually relieved to be fired. I know that does not make a lot of sense, but it is true. I would fret and anguish over having to fire an employee, yet when the meeting came about, I was surprised at the sense of relief exhibited by many employees. It was as if they had been waiting – even wanting – for the event to happen.

What I learned was that most employees know better than anyone how they are performing in the job. When a worker is in over their head or is simply not motivated to do the job, they know it and it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them. There is the FakingItuncertainty over how long they can continue to “fake it” and the anxiety wondering when they will be “caught” and held accountable. They are not happy in the job and this causes their effort to spiral downward even further. Of course, they are not going to raise their hand and advertise their failing, but they definitely are looking for a lifeline. Also interesting is the fact that the longer it takes for the boss to “liberate” them from the job, the less respect they have for the boss. And this creates unnecessary tension when the firing finally comes.

I came to understand that if the entire process leading up to and the actual firing itself is handled in an open, honest fashion and with compassion, then the actual firing of an employee can be a positive experience. Really, it can be. When the boss has done all that should be done to support, assist and communicate with the employee, they can be comfortable with their decision. From the worker’s perspective the burden and uncertainty of being in a job they know they are not or can’t do effectively is taken off their shoulders.

Showing Compassion Lessens the Conflict

In essence, once I learned to approach the firing process from the perspective of the employee it put me in parallel with their concerns, fears and feelings and went a long way toward making the termination process more cathartic than conflicting.

It is not always the case, but more often than not the situation of poor performance calling for termination is because a good person has been put in a bad job. Most good people want to do a good job, but they often find themselves in a job that does not fit their interests, talent or experience. This creates increasing anxiety and fear, driving performance even lower. However, when the boss comes to the under-performing employee more in the role of a liberator than an exterminator, there is more relief than regret.

My experience taught me that if I approached the firing process more as a supportive counselor than a bearer of bad news, the experience was always more positive than negative. I learned that the best approach was to be totally honest about their current performance being unacceptable – and this should not have been a surprise to them – but that I wanted to help and support them in the effort to find a new job – either within the company or outside.

Two things this approach did not include were washing my hands of the process by turning them over to HR for the usual prepackaged legalize “termination package” or suggesting that I would be less than honest if contacted by another perspective employer. But what I did promise was that I would help and support them in finding a new job that better fit their skills and interests.

It may seem fanciful to some, but by following this approach to firing someone, more often than not the person would thank me. Not for being out of a job, but for being out of a job that was more stressful for them than their lack of performance was for me. They respected and appreciated that I stood up and did what they should have done themselves. Such a reaction almost made me look forward to the joy of the next firing — even though I was not Donald Trump.

The Best Way to the Top is to Look to the Bottom (But not the boss’)

When working your way to the top of an organization it is better to be pushed up than pulled up

At the start of any career, getting to the top looks like a long and arduous journey. The climb to the pinnacle of any corporate pyramid is considered so tricky and fraught with so many seemingly impenetrable obstacles that thousands of books and articles have been written purporting to the offer the secret route to the apex of corporate power.

For the most part, these lessons in corporate ladder-climbing suggest that the climber look to those above them for a helping hand. The idea is to try to kissing-assimpress, curry favor, ingratiate and kowtow to those above you; all in the misguided hope that they will pull you up the ladder to power. This strategy for getting to the top is succinctly categorized as the practice of “ass-kissing.”

And ass-kissing must work, since so many people have done it for so long. In fact, from a very young age we are conditioned and trained to use this technique to get ahead. Children learn early on that acting sweet and nice in front of adults, no matter how they may act with peers and siblings, will invariably get them treats. Most are so indoctrinated in the dissemination of false flattery and insinuating themselves into the good graces of those in authority, that by the time they graduate from college they are ready to turn pro. This preparation is deemed essential, because it is a generally accepted dictum in the business world that admission into the elite corporate inner sanctum comes only to those who have proven their proficiency at kissing the asses of those above.

At the same time, we are encouraged to facilitate this ass-kissing task by using those below us in the pecking order as stepping-stones so as to be properly positioned to pucker our lips. (All the while expecting those below us to perform the same function. Much like a chain ass-kiss.)

Down the Up Staircase

The truth is that this concept is ass-backward. In reality, the surest, fastest, safest and most secure way to the top is to pay more attention to the needs, plans, desires and motivations of those below you. By adopting this contrarian approach to career-climbing, the respect you show for those who work for you (after all, they know you don’t have to do that) will motivate them to join together, work hard and push you up. In practical terms, it is much better to have a broad basis of support pushing you up than it is to depend on the idiosyncrasies of a few above you to pull you up.

But don’t get me wrong, I am a firm believer in offering deference and respect to those with greater experience and higher in the pecking order – if they deserve it! And even if they don’t, it is appropriate to show respect for the position, if not for the individual. Our bosses deserve loyalty, respect, and support – until they do something to prove otherwise. But those qualities are best delivered honestly – face to face – not by false flattery and bending over to find an ass to kiss.

I know that it seems like pure Pollyanna to suggest that this anti-ass-kissing strategy will work in the real world, but that is because so few have the courage to employ it; not that it won’t work. There are so many real world examples of the weakness of power when it is focused at the top and the broad base of real power that comes from below, it amazes me that more in the corporate world don’t recognize this reality and use it for their benefit.

Remember back to the days of the Soviet Union and the Iron Curtain. Poland had been sucked into the orbit of the Soviet Union. The power in Poland was consolidated at the top and supported by the military strength of the USSR. If ever there was an ass-kissing society, this was one. The only way one could survive, let alone move up, was with some very serious ass-kissing. Then there was this guy Lech Walesa. He was a lowly electrician in the Lenin Shipyard (now the Putin Shipyard) in Poland. He was about as far down as possible on the political power-grid, but he was anything but an ass-kisser of those above him. He certainly was not helped from above, but he ended up leading the overthrow of the Russian ass-kissing government and ultimately became president of a free Poland. So what happened? Walesa looked down, not up. Appealing to the needs and desires of the masses of powerless people he was able to congeal the efforts of the many to create a power force that ejected those at the top and pushed Walesa up.

Think of it another way: The most powerful natural force on earth is the volcano. How is this power demonstrated? Rocks and debris are hurled thousands of feet in the air and miles away from the volcano, but they are not sucked out of the volcano, they are ejected by a massive force that pushes up from the bottom.

Sure, these examples are a bit grandiose and unlike anything any of us will encounter in our own day-to-day corporate battles, but the fundamental concept demonstrating that real power always works its way from the bottom up and not the top down is relevant – even in the more mundane task of corporate ladder-climbing. It is the recognition of where real power comes from that is important in these examples, because it helps us to understand that the best way to move up is to be pushed up not pulled up. When we recognize that fundamental fact, it not only allows us to see the ultimate futility of ass-kissing for what it is, but more importantly it offers a better strategy for moving up.

My experience in business taught me that the pathway to real and lasting success came from helping others be successful – not the dead-end of ass-kissing. Although I do plead guilty to sometimes playing the fun game of faux ass-kissing, simply to mock those who lived by and fed off it (oh, the stories I could tell about that.) Anyway, the reality is that if we will look down the ladder, instead of up it, and help the people below to be successful, then they will push us up.

I learned early on the rule of “power of numbers” in trying to accomplish my goals. There was a limited amount I could do alone – and even less if I spent time ass-kissing. However, if I could support and motivate those below me, then a lot more could be accomplished and my fortunes would rise with the tide. When you are sincere and honest in your efforts to protect and help those below you to achieve their own personal success, they become a base of support that gives you immense power.

And the Moral of the Story …

Don’t be beguiled by the value of kissing up to your superiors, regardless of how far you ascend the corporate ladder. Deferential? Yes. Toadying? No. Ass-kissing? Never. Break the culture of corporate ass-kissers by stepping out; concentrate on being the best at what you do, accept responsibility and most of all, build a solid foundation of support by looking down the ladder, not up.

AIG’s Hank Greenberg is the Poster Child for the Greed, Arrogance, Hubris and Lack of Shame Exhibited by Many Big Bankers and the Denizens of Wall Street

It is a classic case of megalomaniac superciliousness and brazen hypocrisy. Hank “the snake” Greenberg is suing the U.S. Government for $40 billion. His claim? The government was “unfair” to him and other shareholders when it pumped $184 billion of taxpayer funds into AIG to rescue it from certain bankruptcy.

It may seem like only yesterday when the U.S. was hammered with the worst economic decline since the Great Depression but if you had any delusions that the kind of economic insanity exhibited by bankers, financial gurus and insurance execs who pushed us to the brink of economic annihilation has disappeared, that notion was just shattered by Hank R. Greenberg who has filed a new complaint against Uncle Sam. More about that in a minute.

Greenberg, of course, is the former head of AIG Insurance, and if you don’t remember Hank’s role in this monumental financial firestorm, you’ve probably also forgotten that, not only did Nero play music while his people suffered and Rome burned, but he was a greedy and ineffectual leader in a time of crisis.

The apparent psychotic delusions of Greenberg are so grandiose and in such conflict with the reality of what happened, it is difficult to apply any form of logical sanity to his repugnant action, a fiddling Nero notwithstanding. It is impossible, one could argue, to underestimate the craftiness, deceitfulness and guile of Greenberg and those of his ilk. “Doing the right thing” is the first victim of those like Greenberg who are driven by the testosterone of greed, arrogance and lack of any level of shame or accountability for their actions, no matter how egregious they might be, or how well defined.

gall 1 |gôl|
1 a: brazen boldness coupled with impudent assurance and insolence
1 b:  see temerity or alternately, “Hank Greenberg.”

Greenberg should be in court all right, but he should be the defendant, not a plaintiff. If it were not for the lessons to be learned by dissecting the abhorrent attitude that gives Greenberg the unmitigated gall to take legal action against the government over the AIG bailout, the best thing would be to simply mock him for being so blatantly unscrupulous. But in this latter day immorality play it’s futile to rely on reality and logic when dealing with someone who is so wholly deranged by deep-seated greed and personal hubris.

The Greenberg Lawsuit: a model of fallacious reasoning

The mistakes of history are often repeated when those who made the mistakes are allowed to rewrite the history of those mistakes or when the lessons learned from those mistakes are forgotten by those who were victimized and are allowed to be repeated. It appears that Greenberg is relying on both these factors in his effort to extract more money for himself from the government.

The basis of Greenberg’s litigation is that (1) the government exceeded its constitutional authority by forcing AIG shareholders (of which Greenberg was the largest) to sell 92 percent of their stock to the government for $184 billion. And (2) the terms of loans made to AIG by the government at 14 percent interest were tantamount to “extortion.” By reason of the latter, Greenberg now claims the government (i.e., we taxpayers) owes him $40 billion.

His logic is utter nonsense. As one pundit discussing the lawsuit put it, this is akin to a house fire caused by your own negligence and then, after the fire department saves your home, you sue them for getting your furniture wet. Greenberg’s only hope to be victorious in this lawsuit is that there will be mass amnesia as to the reasons why the government was forced to bail out AIG and its shareholders in the first place.

In September of 2008, AIG, then the largest insurance organization in the world, was on the precipice of bankruptcy. AIG had been pushed to the edge of implosion, because of irrational decisions motivated by the seemingly boundless greed of Hank Greenberg and others at the company. This stupendous lack of good judgment prompted AIG to insure hundreds of billions of dollars in potential losses from toxic mortgage securities sold by virtually every major financial institution in the world. In doing do, Greenberg drove AIG to violate every fundamental insurance law of risk management, all in a self-serving determination to maximize short-term profits and bonuses.

When this mine field of poisonous mortgages began to explode and rip through the economy, AIG found itself saddled with hundreds of billions of dollars in claims that dwarfed the total assets of the company. Not only was AIG insolvent – some say within hours of running out of money and being forced to close its doors – but the companies that had purchased AIG’s “mortgage guarantee insurance” would also face failure. This could have quickly caused the entire American economic structure – if not the global economy –to collapse in panic.

So here’s the sticker:  If Greenberg’s AIG had been isolated in this financial quagmire, the government would probably have kept hands off and allowed it go bankrupt; just as it had in the case of the Lehman Bros. bankruptcy a few months earlier. But Greenberg had allowed AIG to assume so much risky liability from so many companies, that the government arguably had no choice – specific power or not – but to intercede. The potential economic catastrophe of failing to act as AIG collapsed was just too frightening to risk. It is not hyperbole to suggest that such a result could have challenged the very concept of capitalism.

Keep in mind that had the government allowed AIG to fall into bankruptcy and be dissolved (as happened with Lehman Bros. and numerous other companies) then Hank “the snake” Greenberg and every other shareholder would have found their stock to be totally worthless. As it was, in 2010 Greenberg sold his remaining stock of AIG for $278 million; not a bad “reward” for a guy whose greed helped trigger one of the largest and most painful economic declines in American history.

So what is the basis for the Greenberg suit against the government – really all of us as taxpayers?

Greenberg wants to rewrite history. He wants us to forget the chaos and panic that would have been exacerbated by the failure of AIG. With a straight face and feigned indignation, he argues that the government had no legal authority to “seize” his property by forcing him to sell his stock to the government. If anything, this argument just validates what a total sleaze Greenberg really is. He has no concern for the country or anyone but himself.

This snake Greenberg then compounds what should be our utter revulsion of him by claiming that, even if the government did Aig_logo-2have the power to force the sale of his stock, the price the government paid — $184 billion – was a rip-off and he should have been paid a lot more. When the government stepped in, the market value of AIG was $15 billion; and yet the government paid $184 billion. Just who got ripped-off here? And again, let’s not forget that if AIG had been allowed to fail, Greenberg’s stock would have been worthless!

There is a touch of ironic humor in Greenberg’s suit. (Actually, more than a touch if you follow the likes of political satirist Jon Stewart). Initially the government made an emergency loan to AIG of $40 billion dollars. This quick-shot of capital was critical to keeping AIG functioning while a long-term rescue plan was developed. The government charged AIG 14 percent interest on the loan. Now, in his perverted sense of reality, Greenberg is claiming that the loan terms imposed by the government amounted to “extortion.” This jerk has no shame!

The irony here is that AIG was a subprime borrower. The company was insolvent, unable to pay its bills and about to go out of business. With no other option for capital sufficient to save the company – 14 percent was a cheap rate! Can you imagine what a “private equity” firm would have charged AIG if one had the willingness and capital to bail out AIG? And, just for good measure, remember that even with a good credit record, banks charge individuals 18 percent on credit card debt. Yet, Greenberg has the gall to claim that the government ripped off AIG!

But Here is the Worst Part

It would be one thing if Greenberg were an aberration when it comes to the type of mentality and attitude he brazenly exhibits. He could be dismissed as simply a delusional, demented kook. But unfortunately, when it comes to big banks and corporate tycoons, Greenberg is more the norm than the exception. Remember that Greenberg was just a player, albeit a major player, in the economic meltdown.

Believe it or not, there are a number of investment firms and corporations that are supportive of the Greenberg lawsuit. They seem to feel that if they also get “to big to fail” and are about to, that the government will step in and do to them what it did to AIG. They should be so lucky! And the banks – the incompetent herd of complicit conspirators whose actions triggered the financial meltdown in the first place, are now chafing under the new rules (the old ones that had worked so well for 70 years were repealed) designed to keep them away from sharp knives so they can’t hurt themselves or us again. It is mind-boggling how irrational some can be when they rewrite history in their own minds and have self-imposed amnesia when it comes to their mistakes of the past.

And the Moral of the Story …

In the end, I have only one thing to say to Hank “the snake” Greenberg: Go “#@*&” yourself! And while you are at it, all those you rode in with. Take the hundreds of millions you sucked out of the government (taxpayers) and AIG and go crawl back in your hole. You should be the one sued, not the American people.