elitefts™ Sunday edition

Fire the Unhappy People!

Several years ago, I was visiting with an incredibly successful hospital CEO who had a great reputation for developing exceptional employee cultures within the organizations that he led. I asked him a simple question, “How did you develop such a positive and engaged workforce?” He looked at me and said, “I fire all the unhappy people.” At first, I thought that he was joking! How could this gentleman who cared so much about his staff say something so coldhearted? For years I was told by many corporate HR executives that dissatisfied or unhappy employees needed their supervisors to “engage in productive and solution-based dialogue where they can express why their attitudes are not in line with expectations.” We were then to support and coach them and, in the end, win them over…not simply fire them based on their attitude! Obviously, this new mentor of mine was mistaken...

Guess what? He was not joking…in fact, this simple philosophy of “firing all the unhappy people” was one of the major reasons why he was so successful.

The Four Strategies

He told me, “There are some people out there for whom you can do everything right as a supervisor and their attitude will always be poisonous. You can’t coach, support or even ‘love’ it out of them.” Because of this, it is better to remove them from your culture, than attempt to mitigate their negative behavior. When I asked him how he did this, he gave me the following four strategies.

  1. Don’t let them in the door. Always make certain that you have a great employee selection process that focuses on the applicants’ attitudes. This can be done both through the questions that you ask them, and also by simple observations of the hiring managers. I learned that he focused more on hiring for attitude than skill level because, as he stated, “I can develop their skills, I can’t force them to have a good attitude.”
  2. Make attitude part of their evaluationIn the hospitals that he ran, attitude-based content accounted for over half of the existing employees’ yearly evaluations. This ranged from physicians to housekeepers. It accomplished two major goals. Doing this created a formal rating system on employee attitude that required supervisors to frequently evaluate it. And, it fully incentivized employee behavior and allowed supervisors to either reward or penalize staff based on their adherence to the hospital’s expectations.
  3. Correct negative behavior very quickly. This is critical. If an employee’s attitude is consistently sour, his supervisors are trained to correct it very quickly. This is done either through coaching, counseling or corrective action. He learned that negativity can be extremely cancerous and, if allowed to spread, always has the potential to threaten the health of the culture as a whole. This didn’t mean that employees weren’t allowed to complain about organizational problems that were impacting their jobs…quite the contrary! Supervisors were trained to ask for feedback regularly and employees were encouraged to freely give it; however, the channels for offering this feedback were clearly described and anything that resembled gossip or “being negative for the sake of being negative” was simply not tolerated.
  4. If correction isn’t effective, pull the trigger. Everyone has bad days…however, if an employee is consistently negative over time despite coaching and support, it is time for them to go. Most of the time, supervisors wait far too long before they dissect the cancer from the workforce. My CEO friend suggested that you formally talk about attitude with an employee a maximum of three times and, if nothing changes, make them “available to the industry.” An efficient and timely termination based on a consistently negative attitude rids the organization of the miserable staff member, and also serves as an example to the remaining team that this is something that the organization takes very seriously. 

A Final Piece of Advice

Needless to say, I was a bit taken aback by my mentor’s simplistic, yet profound, philosophies and I told him that I was eager to develop a similar approach in my own organization. He told me that he enjoyed our conversation and wished me the very best of luck, however, he also added one final piece of advice before I left his office. He stated that this approach only works if you and your organization are already doing right by the majority of the staff and are giving them the support and attention that they deserve. A negative workplace almost always brings out the worst in people – even great people – and you must have a generally positive culture before you can identify and flesh out the isolated negativity. This strategy is best suited to protect and advance an already healthy organization and not be used in one that is in desperate need of rehabilitation from an employee support perspective.

As I think back to that conversation so many years ago, I now recognize how significant that advice truly was in my development as an Executive. I used this approach time and time again and it hasn't failed me yet. In order to truly possess a “results based” culture, you must first have a “people based” culture with employees who daily enter a workplace that minimizes negativity, cuts the drama and focuses on getting the outcomes that everyone desires.

Thanks for reading.