Everyone must contribute.

Growing and retaining productive employees

Dave Kinnear1-On Leadership

Recently, on one of the e-mail lists to which I subscribe, a colleague mentioned that he had been counseled by one of his mentors that the best thing he could do for his good employees was to fire a bad employee. Sounds harsh. Yet it is true that for the greater good, we have to sometimes admit that we will not be able to help an under-performing employee to make the grade. It’s best for them and for the organization if we “make their services available to industry.”

I admire the companies for whom I have worked that have gone out of their way to make sure that they did everything possible to help their employees be productive and happy. They provided training. They moved people from one place to another. They provided internal mentors or professional coaches to both high performing employees and those who needed to “push on some growing edges” for the sake of their career. But what I and others appreciated the most was that they also were willing to set some goals and if they were not reached, the employee was dismissed, compassionately.

I have found that this view of “tough love” approach to employees is particularly difficult in small businesses. In many small businesses, employees are like family, except they get a salary and benefits instead of an allowance! The problem is that we should never hire someone we cannot fire, and family members, real or adopted, are extremely difficult to let go. Now is the time, however, to really pay attention to and begin action on shaping your corporate culture to be one based on performance, consistency and fairness – at all levels.

I know that many of us have been forced to “cut to the bone” during this recession. You may well believe that there is no room for more cuts, and perhaps you are correct. That does not mean, however, that your culture is one that will support an understanding of performance, consistency and fairness going forward. All your executives, managers and employees know that you were “forced to downsize” in order to stay alive. They will not see your actions as being performance based so much as needing to cut costs, unless you truly did reduce your workforce based on performance. Perhaps you used the seniority or LIFO (last in, first out) method to make your decisions. If so, your employees do not believe that their performance will influence their employment with you – so no loyalty either.

If you believe you have really made the reductions in force using performance as the main criteria, then you don’t have a problem. If, however, you were not consistent and fair in how you reduced your workforce, then you will have a very difficult time as the economy turns around and people are willing to change jobs. Many of us are dealing with workers who are sticking with us, even though they are not particularly happy, because they know they do not want to be “on the street with a resume” at this point. They feel overworked, burned out and in need of something exciting to pick up their spirits. How will you keep the good employees, the ones that are most productive?

I recommend two things that are a bit counter intuitive. First, be ruthless in getting your employees to stop doing things they and you can do without. Stop making the report that you’ve always looked at but on which you base no business decisions. There are likely many other tasks with which you can do without. Unburden your employees by making sure that no expendable or marginal tasks are continued. “Nice to have” no longer cuts it.

Second, and more on topic, begin now carefully, consistently and fairly evaluate employees for performance and how well they adopt to change (like letting go of tasks). You must not allow poor performers to stay in the organization or you will totally demoralize your whole workforce. I’ve said before that there are many good employees, excellent employees who are either available now or because their present employer is not as enlightened as you will be available if they know you are prepared to bring them on board. It is a good time to build a winning team comprising your best players and the best players who have yet to be hired.