Executive Overreach

In a recent interview, Hillary Clinton said that Bill didn’t need to resign because of the extramarital high jinx he had with Monica Lewinsky. That Monica was an adult at the time and made her own decision.

Whether you’re “I’m with Her” or “Lock Her Up” on the Hillary scale, she’s simply wrong here. And it has nothing to do with Monica’s age.

No one should be personally involved with someone who works for them. Even several levels down in the organization. Or rather: especially several levels down in the organization. Period.

This is not complex, the power dynamic, even among consenting adults, is too strong. It’s simply impossible to separate the many possible underlying motives, the implicit pressures, and the resultant head games. On all sides of the relationship.

I say this as someone who just this week celebrated 35 years of marriage to a wonderful woman I met at the office. She worked in a different department, the only common manager we had was two levels above me. Yet we still snuck around like teenagers in love so as not to create scandal at the office.

I’m not suggesting some sort of Billy Graham rule where men and women are never alone at the office. Or that we ignore the natural tendencies for people who work together to occasionally find love.

What I am saying is that, regardless of ages, regardless of intent, and regardless of the seeming completely conscious decision of both parties, relationships among people where one works for the other are wrong. Full stop.

I don’t know if Bill Clinton should have resigned. But what happened with Monica was wrong. Those rules in the HR Policy Manual of virtually every organization about that kind of behavior are spot on.

How do I fire someone?

Getting the boot

If you’ve been following along with me, you know that I’m a huge fan of clearing dead or diseased wood from your organization. Nothing rots an organization more effectively than people who don’t carry their share of the load, or who complain all the time, or are jerks. These people become a cancer to the team, and if you leave them around you send a very strong signal that this behavior is not only tolerated, but perhaps even preferred. Removing these people from your organization is often the fastest, best, and maybe even the only cure.

So, after much pain and deliberation, you’ve decided that the only really good solution to your problem with that person is to simply get them out of your organization. Good for you. Now the question is: how do I do it?

The short answer is: quickly, like removing a band-aid. Dragging it out is just like slow death, and it doesn’t make it any easier for either party. You just need to buck up, sit down with the victim, and fire away.

No, I don’t mean to let them have it with both barrels. If you’re firing someone, they don’t need to hear your long litany of reasons why this is the right thing to do. You may in fact be better off just keeping it simple, and not getting into specifics.

But you do need to be honest. You do have to tell them that there is a problem, you consider that problem insurmountable, and the time has come for them to leave.

You should do it quickly, frankly, and professionally.

You should do it quickly, frankly, and professionally. Don’t talk about the weather and “those darn Red Sox”. Don’t get wishy-washy and say “I think that maybe this is the right thing.” You have to be definitive and not make this seem like a time for negotiation.

And you absolutely have to be a professional and take responsibility. It’s not “the company is making me do this”, it is “I am doing this because…”. Just like every other aspect of being a leader, it’s not “them” that are doing this, it’s you. You have to be an adult and take ownership.

None of this is to suggest, however that you violate my number one rule for all employee job actions: no job action should ever be a surprise. Period. I don’t care if you are hiring or firing, promoting or demoting, giving a raise or laying them off. If you sit down with the person, and the action comes as a surprise, you, not they, have done something wrong.

No job action should ever be a surprise

If you are firing someone, this is especially true. They should have received steadily more dire performance appraisals. They should have had at least a couple of different private conversations warning that the behavior is not what’s expected. And they should never get mixed messages that makes them think that the behavior is sometimes OK. It needs to be clearly, and always wrong.

This progression of warnings is not only true because it’s just good management, but it’s also the law in many places. You can’t simply go merrily along telling someone they are doing fine, and then — BOOM — drop the hammer on them one day. It’s morally (maybe criminally) wrong, and it leads to the whole organization wondering if they are next.

So be sure you telegraph your intentions, in several different ways. Make that final conversation when you let them go be one they knew was coming, and is now finally here. It will make the conversation easier for both of you, and will also make it less likely to turn into a debate, a negotiation, or worse, a lawsuit.

Finally, you also really should check out your local (usually state) laws and/or union rules if they apply. As I say in my disclaimer, I am most definitely not a lawyer, nothing about this is to indicate you should violate any laws, regulations, or contracts. Your mileage may vary. Some conditions apply. Yadda, yadda.

But, you’ve made huge progress, you’ve decided they need to go. Good for you. Now get it done with and move on with your life, and make your organization into that great team you envisioned all along. Everyone, the team, you, and maybe someday even the victim, will be proud of you for it.

Testing Really Doesn’t Work

Lisa Nowak
Lisa “Robochick” Nowak

I have all kinds of anecdotal evidence that personality testing doesn’t work, but I’ve never had a case that I could talk about publicly, or that was so widely known that it would prove the point for me. Today NASA came to my rescue.

If you haven’t read my thoughts on the subject of testing of employees, please take a minute to read my FAQ article on it here. [Go ahead, I’ll wait.] The gist of the article, at least as far as personality testing is concerned, is that it simply doesn’t work. The tests are usually gamed, and the results are little better predictors than fortune tellers at the county fair.

Today, NASA (or at least one of their finest) proved me right. NASA has, for years, put their astronaut candidates through huge batteries of testing, including the obvious physical testing, drug testing, and numerous mental and psychological tests. The theory here is that they want to prevent a crisis in space where a nut case would make for a pretty interesting crisis miles from earth and the nearest shrink’s couch.

While there is little public acknowledgment of whether NASA actually makes assignments based on these tests, there is plenty of lore surrounding it. From Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff to Ron Howard’s movie Apollo 13, there are numerous dramatic cases where people were supposedly denied space flight because of these tests.

At the very least, you have to assume that NASA goes to all this trouble to test candidates with the expectation of learning something about the people. One could reasonably assume that they would, if the tests showed potential issues, gently steer the person toward non-mission critical positions. Well, today we have evidence that they “missed it by that much” (with a nod to Don Adams)…

Nowak's Booking Photo
Nowak’s Booking Photo

In case you missed it, today a NASA astronaut was caught up in a truly bizarre love triangle. Lisa Nowak (aka “Robochick”) was charged with attempted murder and kidnapping after she traveled the 900 miles from Houston to Orlando wearing a diaper. Apparently she was just barely stopped from going all wiggy all over the rival for her imagined lover (also an astronaut).

Clearly this is the kind of behavior one would hope personality tests could predict. And equally clearly, Nowak passed the battery of tests, as she rode the shuttle to the international space station last year aboard mission STS-121. But, here we are today, with her obviously not in a particularly sound mental state.

Finally I have the definitive case study. An organization that tests more rigorously than any private employer could ever hope to, has a clear and obvious failure of these silly tests. Can we all just admit it now that they are worthless and stop wasting time, energy, and future employee goodwill on them?

Wal-Mart’s Flexible Employee Scheduling

Wal-Mart Logo

Some smart accountant at Wal-Mart woke up one day recently and realized that, with 1.6 million “associates”, they spend a lot of money on people. So, like any major employer, they decided to figure out ways to cut their costs on this huge expense.

However, unlike most other large employers, they decided to leverage computer power to figure out the problem. This follows in line with a great history at a company where Sam Walton was one of the first to use computers to calculate costs, measure sales, and optimize distribution. So Wal-Mart decided to put their employees’ schedules into the grinder and see what came out the other side.

The result was a computerized system that totally overhauled employee scheduling.

The result was a computerized system that totally overhauled employee scheduling. The system optimizes the schedule so that employees are matched with customer demand. It completely changes the balance of the scheduling equation from the employee saying “this is when can I work” to the company saying “this is when you can work”. Employees are, in effect, a fungible resource.

The Wall Street Journal had an article [ed: subscription-only content] that raked the company over the coals for this system. The key portion of the article is:

Staffing is the latest arena in which companies are trying to wring costs and attain new efficiencies. The latest so-called scheduling-optimization systems can integrate data ranging from the number of in-store customers at certain hours to the average time it takes to sell a television or unload a truck, and help predict how many workers will be needed at any given hour.

Companies also hope the scheduling systems will cut litigation by helping them comply with federal wage-and-hour laws, and variations at the state level on everything from the timing and frequency of breaks to how many hours minors can be scheduled. Moreover, retailers say tighter scheduling lets them better serve customers by shortening checkout lines.

This sounds fine in theory, and I’m all for better customer service. But the article goes on to say:

[The system] means workers may not know when or if they will need a babysitter or whether they will work enough hours to pay that month’s bills. Rather than work three eight-hour days, someone might now be plugged into six four-hour days, mornings one week and evenings the next.

This is the key to my objection with this system. Wal-Mart and their accountants seem to feel that their “associates” are simply another resource to be scheduled, like trucks or Cheerios deliveries. (As a side note, this is also why I have always objected to the term “Human Resources”, but I don’t have a better one…). A system that treats them as such misses all the key points that make people tick.

People are not automatons, they are not “resources”.

People are not automatons, they are not “resources”. They are highly unpredictable, remarkably resistant to change, and yet wonderfully flexible at the same time. They can be counted on to simultaneously perform miracles in the face of impossible tasks and yet drop the ball on the simplest of missions. And they deeply resent being treated like machines.

The heat from the Wall Street Journal Article was so hot that Wal-Mart felt compelled to issue a release within 48 hours that attempted to defend the new system. You can read it here. It is a really defensive piece that presents a 15 bullet point list of “advantages”. A couple of key points are:

We want our associates to be able to meet the needs of their family, educational needs, or secondary job needs and do what we can to help promote balance in the work place.

Our main goal is to ensure that we have the correct number of associates in our stores needed to serve the customers shopping which we believe results in better customer service hour by hour.

I love the part about “secondary job needs”. Does that really mean “our employees are so impoverished by our compensation that they need other jobs to make ends meet”? But I digress…

My favorite point in their rebuttal is:

Management has seen the amount of time spent on creating schedules by store managers go from 8-15 hours per week down to 15-30 minutes per week.

Good for them. That really is the point, isn’t it? It’s all about the company. Except that’s not the point. If you want the best of your employees, you have to treat them with respect. And treating them like trucks or robots doesn’t do that.

Personnel Management Systems, Inc.

Most organizations with over a handful of employees need some kind of Human Resources help. But, unless you are a company of more than 100, you probably don’t want or need a full-time HR person on staff. This leaves you with an interesting problem: either you hire someone part-time or get a consultant.

Unless you are more than 100 strong, you don’t need a full-time HR person.

With a part-time person, you can find yourself facing some additional problems. HR issues tend to be a crisis when they happen, and the person may not be there. It’s hard to say: “can you wait to storm out the door until Friday, when Susie’s here?” In addition, the real pros in HR tend to be just that — real pros, and they work full-time (most I know work far more than full-time). So part-time help may not be a good solution.

On-call consultants can certainly be professional, and helpful. But they can also be expensive for routine matters, and they too can be hard to reach just at the moment of a crisis.

PMSI Website

So what to do? Many small firms use “HR Outsourcing” companies that provide HR services from recruiting and hiring to crisis assistance. There are a number of firms out there, but the one I’m most impressed with is Personnel Management Systems.

They are based in the Seattle area, but they also have an office in Denver. If you are small- to medium-sized firm looking for HR assistance just when you need it, you owe it to yourself to check out PMSI.

People Strategy

A “people strategy” is a document that represents a number of key company decisions about its relationship with the employees. It forces the company to pre-think a wide range of decisions relating to the people and codifies these decisions into a brief document.

Here is a brief (two pages) guide to developing a good people strategy:

I consider a good people strategy to be one of the first things a growing company should do, long before developing policy manuals, and other typical HR busy work. It’s a good way to set the direction of your company. And I recommend that people review and/or update it every year. Right before or after they do their People Audit (more information on that here).

Are employee awards a good idea?

Employee Award

When the discussion of how to compensate and reward employees comes up, almost invariably someone comes up with the idea of the “employee of the month” award. Sometimes the name of the award is less tired, maybe it’s outstanding associate of the year. Or the top achiever of the quarter. It doesn’t matter what you call them, these kind of awards are a bad idea.

Every time I tell people not to fall for this easy trap in the employee compensation world, they object. They complain that I’m harping on them all the time to think of ways to reward employees that don’t involve money. They say: “here’s a great way to reward people for good performance, it’s cheap, what more could you want?” And there are hundreds of companies that proclaim to make “tools to motivate employees” who push this junk (here’s a link to one).

For the first clue as to what’s wrong with these kind of awards, walk into your local fast-food joint, distribution company, or supermarket. There, over in the corner, you’ll see it. The dusty brown frame with little brass name plates, and maybe faded photos taken from employee badges. The employee of the month award plaque. Look carefully. What’s the most recent date? If you’re lucky it will only be six months ago. I’ve seen some as old as three years, with not an update since. I don’t think I’ve ever seen one with more than ten months on it.

It’s hard to keep up the momentum with these things.

The first and most obvious problem is that it’s hard to keep up the momentum with these things. With all the things you have to do to run a business every month, this inevitably falls to the bottom of the list. So for a couple of months you wrestle with it to get it done at the last minute, then you find yourself a month or two behind, finally it just falls by the wayside. What a message this sends to the employees: you can’t even find time for this simple little form of recognition.

Employee of the Month
Employee of the Month

Another problem is also obvious. Look closely at that plaque. See any patterns? Yes, you see the same couple of employees over and over again. And why is that? Because you really only have two choices when awarding these things: 1) be honest and give it to the best employees, or 2) rotate it around and give it to everyone once. In the first case, the same few employees will consistently rise to the top. In the other case, the award becomes a joke to the employees. Which is why it’s always done the first way. And the pattern is inevitable. What a wonderful message it sends to your employees, that only a handful of them are worth recognition.

Which brings us around to the effect of these awards on the employees. Does it really reward the winner? Or do they feel awkward for being singled out in this beauty contest that really doesn’t mean anything? They know there is no money in it, they know the choice wasn’t really objective (more on that later), and they know you’re not recognizing them because you want to, but because it’s the end of the month and someone has to get the silly thing. They also know they are either going to get a lot of grief from their friends for winning it, or a bunch of resentment from others who didn’t. So they sheepishly accept it, and the flaccid applause of the folks gathered in the lunch room, and go back to work.

More often than not, they feel like… losers.

What do the non-winners (the other 99% of the employees) think about it? More often than not, they feel like… losers. To make themselves feel less like losers, they badmouth the award, and tell everyone that only idiots and suckups get it. And they probably give the winner a hard time for winning it. They certainly don’t say to themselves: “gee how do I get one of those?”

Which brings me around to the final point: how do you make this decision? If the choice is truly objective (top sales, lowest complaints, etc.) you need to resign yourself to the fact that you have no control over the award. And constant repeat winners are inevitable. And the losers, who already know they are losers, certainly don’t need this award to rub their noses into it.

Or, you can make the award be more subjective: “most eager”, “best team player”, or maybe “best overall”. This puts you back in control, but then it introduces a number of problems. Like accusations of favoritism. Or having it seem arbitrary. Or second-guessing from all corners about why you chose who you did that make a baseball argument look like a picnic. Ugh…

The more you think about employee awards, the less you’ll think they are a good idea. I have a number of thoughts on better ways to reward and recognize your employees. Stay tuned to CLWill.com for more.

How long should I keep a short-timer around?


They have decided to leave, now you have to decide how long to keep them around. In general, there are two schools of thought:

  • Get them out the door as fast as you can.
  • Get as much work out of them as you can.

There are a lot of variations in between, and a lot of contingent factors to consider, of course. But in general, all the choices boil down to something approaching these.

I’ll cut to the chase scene and tell you, I’m firmly in the “show them the door” camp, unless there are some extenuating circumstances. The key reason is that the person has already committed to the new job, they are mentally there already. Also, they are a short-timer, and even the most dedicated and faithful of employees gets “short-timer syndrome”. They will introduce, even unintentionally, an “I’m outta here” mood with it’s lax attention to detail, a poor attitude toward their peers, and worst of all, make others think about leaving. So, most of the time, I’m in favor of “thanks for playing our game” and a quick exit… measured in hours.

I’m firmly in the “show them the door” camp

The only real exception is when the person holds essential responsibilities that simply no one else knows enough to handle, and you think the extra time will help train a replacement. In this case, where the outgoing person essentially has your organization hostage, a little extra time is worth the downside. But I rarely see value in more than the customary two weeks, and always recommend that you keep your options open and monitor the situation on a daily basis. If the mood is going south, cut the person loose, immediately.

I talk about replacement training elsewhere, but it’s important to be realistic, if not pessimistic about it. In my experience, short-timer syndrome takes over and completely engulfs any potential knowledge transfer you may gain from the departing employee. They usually are leaving their job because they don’t like it, or see it as a dead end, and there is zero chance they won’t (even unintentionally) pass this attitude on to their replacement.

And as a side benefit, I usually find that a complete re-think of the job, with the new employee revitalizing the position, can work wonders for both the effectiveness of a position, and the morale of the incoming replacement. So don’t rely on the outgoing person for knowledge transfer. Assign a new employee, give them the essentials, and tell them you are looking for their input on how the job would best work.

So, unless you have done a very poor job in providing backup on an ongoing basis, or you have allowed an employee to develop unique and secret knowledge about their work (both mortal sins — on your part), prompt exits are the best. Simply thank people for their work, and offer to help them clean out their desk. Seriously.

Same day exits are the best.

Same day exits are the best. This leaves the least amount of time for morale damage to the rest of the team, for questions from all concerned (and not concerned) about why, where, how much, etc., and perhaps often overlooked in this information age, the least amount of time for them to steal or damage essential information. Change their password immediately, get them out the door with the least amount of stuff possible, and offer to settle up on all other issues (pay, COBRA, personal items left in the office, business items still at home, etc.) later.

And, for your amusement, it usually catches people off guard and sends a wonderfully strong signal to the rest of the organization: Thinking about leaving? Fine, but don’t expect me to beg you to stay. That’s never a bad signal to send.

Should I try to convince someone to stay?


It’s a common management situation: someone walks into your office, and says “I think I’m leaving.” The next move is yours, and it stumps a lot of managers. Should you:

  • Try to talk them out of leaving
  • Beg and plead for them to stay
  • Wish them the best of luck in their new job
  • Advise them to be careful of the door on their way out

Of course, your answer is highly dependent on the situation, the person, and the timing. If this is a crucial position, and you’re within weeks of a crucial deadline, you will respond differently than if it is a loser who you’ve been trying to figure out how to handle for months. So I can’t give a single, pat answer for every situation. But I can tell you how to approach the decision.

Are they special?

First, you need to ask yourself honestly how important this person is to your organization. And here, it is important to differentiate the person from the position. Right now, it’s all about the person. (We’ll assume for the moment that this is a position the organization really needs.)

If this is someone you can see in almost any position, then they are worth saving

If this individual is quite special, someone you can see in almost any position in your organization, then they are worth saving. If they are good, even if they have years of experience, but not truly special, you should probably just let them go.

This is the crucial choice, the one that deserves the most attention. And you need to be very self-critical on this. Are they honestly unique? Or can you imagine finding someone as good within weeks? This is the crux of the decision, but if you are honest with yourself, it’s not that hard to make.

Why are they leaving?

Assuming they are worth saving, you should place yourself in the other person’s head, for just a minute. Ask yourself how hard this decision was to make, and how difficult you think it was for them to tell you. If you think this was a very big decision for them, that they anguished over it for weeks, and they have been dreading coming to tell you, you need to take that into account. In such a situation, trying to talk them out of it will only make them feel worse, solidify their decision, and make you look desperate.

How you approach this conversation is critical

If, on the other hand, you think they just got an offer and decided quickly to take a shot at it, perhaps you do have a chance to convince them otherwise. How you approach this conversation is critical. If you are flippant or ridicule the other opportunity, you are essentially telling them how stupid they are for considering it. Not a good approach.

If you are calm, reasoned, and considerate, you may have a chance to convince them to stay. You need to move into “trusted advisor” mode, and try to help them evaluate the choice. This is your only chance to change their mind. If you become someone they can trust, and rely on to be objective, maybe they will want to stay. It’s a slim chance, but well worth a try. And if it fails, you still have credibility — and perhaps they will return when the grass isn’t that much greener over there.

Is it a ploy?

Quickly wish them well, and offer to help clean out their desk

Another possibility is that they are threatening to leave simply to gain concessions from you (more compensation, for example). If this is the case, you need to call their bluff. Quickly wish them well, and offer to help clean out their desk. If it is a ploy, it speaks volume to their character, their dedication, and their relationship with your organization. You don’t want/need them.

If they are willing to leave on those terms, what will happen when the going really gets tough? And if you cave, what’s next? Will you offer them your job to stay? No, just let them go, and send a clear message to all in the organization that this behavior is not condoned.

Can you afford it?

Finally, if you find yourself needing to make some kind of committments to keep them (more money, fewer hours, new manager, etc.) you need to do so very carefully.

You may end up with a parade in your office

First, be sure you can actually deliver. Nothing could be worse that for you to convince someone to turn down another offer, and then not follow through on your part. They will never trust you again.

Second, be sure it is something you are willing to do for similarly placed individuals. Word will get out, and you may well end up with a parade in your office looking for the same concession. This is another reason to be sure the person is truly special before you make the decision to convince them to stay. That way, you can differentiate when the others come marching in.


I’m a “thanks for playing our game” kind of manager

In summary, the important decision is the uniqueness of the individual. If they are truly special and unique, try to save them. Otherwise, simply let them go. And if you want to save them, it’s vital you understand their motives, so you can best change their mind. In general terms, I’m a “thanks for playing our game” kind of manager. Special people just don’t come around that often.

Drug Policy as Marketing Tool?

Stanley Steemer Truck
The Ubiquitous Stanley Steemer Truck

Stanley Steemer is running ads (at least in the Seattle area) that are the first I’ve ever seen where a company is using their employee drug policy as a marketing tool.

In the ads, a pretty woman (housewife?) is shown with concern over letting strangers into her house, and with obvious relief that, because she called Stanley Steemer, there aren’t stoners invading her space. The line is that not only do they get your carpet clean, but their employees are clean too. I’ve got a FAQ that deals with the whole issue of employee testing, but this ad campaign raises a lot of questions for me.

This ad campaign raises a lot of questions for me

First, although I’m not a marketing expert, I wonder about all the standard marketing questions: is this a real concern for potential customers, is this a differentiator (do their competitors have an obvious problem with this), and do people believe the message? Even further, isn’t this making people who wouldn’t have otherwise thought about the issue of drug-impaired carpet cleaners now wonder about it and want to avoid it altogther (rent a machine and do it themselves)? I certainly didn’t think of the carpet cleaning business as a particular hot spot for the drug crowd… until this ad…

Then there’s the whole host of procedural questions:

  • What do they test for? Illegal drugs only? How about alcohol? What about prescription drugs? Performance enhancing drugs?
  • How often do they test? Only on hire? What if the person changes? So do they test every month?
  • What kind of a test is it? Urine, which misses a lot of drugs, or blood which is invasive?
  • Who do they test? Just the people who clean the carpets? How about sales people? The people on the phone? The managers? The CEO?
  • Are there exceptions? Can I get out of it on religous grounds?
  • What do they do with the long-time employee who suddenly goes dirty? Fire them? Keep them in the office? Rehab?
  • How much does this whole testing effort cost? Could it ever be worth the expense?

Of course there are the many privacy questions. What right does my employer have to know what I do in my off time? And who sees the results? Just HR? My manager? The health insurance provider? The police?

You have to be more sober to clean carpets than to play major league baseball?

Then there’s the issue of their relationship with their employees. “That’s right Sally, you have to pee in the cup before you can go to work.” That sure builds a wonderful trusting relationship between employer and employee. “Yep, Bob, you have to be more sober to clean carpets than to play major league baseball.” Please don’t get me started there…

But perhaps the most stunning part of all of this is that they don’t tell potential hires about this. That’s right, nowhere on their web site is this drug policy mentioned. I scoured their entire site, and especially their employment section, and there’s not a word about drug testing. There are lots of flowery words about how wonderful it is to work there, plenty of encouragement for you to apply, but not a word about peeing in a cup when you do. The first sign you see when you walk into many stores is “we drug test all applicants”. But at Stanley Steemer, they apparently keep that a surprise for the potential employee while touting it to potential customers.

All in all this seems like a really bad move, and shows remarkably poor judgement on the part of the Stanley Steemer leadership team. I’m sure it will be short-lived, quickly forgotten in the market, but long remembered in the company.