Hiring, Training, and Firing Employees

Based on a Paul Downs column in the New York Times, here's a thoughtful thread about how to optimize your workforce for skill, teamwork, efficiency, and morale. July 18, 2013

The excerpt below is from an article I recently read.

"The most difficult cases are when workers donít misbehave but arenít particularly efficient or donít do outstanding work. Iíve noticed over the years that there is wide variation in what you might call handiness. Some people just have better hands than others. They can make machines work, perform difficult operations, build hard projects, and just plain get stuff done at high quality and at high speed. Others canít. Nothing is more heartbreaking than realizing that a worker who is trying his hardest canít cut it. And then thereís another group that lies somewhere in the middle. These workers have pretty good skills and a pretty good work ethic. In the years before 2008, when we were desperate to hire almost any warm body, I ended up with a number of these workers. Unfortunately, we were unable to put together effective training or management to maximize their effectiveness. I take full blame for this."

What are folksí thoughts on this? When it comes to firing for lack of performance, are you setting new hires up for failure? Where should the middle of the road workers go to improve and get to the next level? If there is potential, would your organization foster that potential or simply pass it by and lose what could be a quality employee?

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor S:
Once you have more than three or four employees you have a choice to make. This choice is one of the big determining factors in the future culture of your company. The question is, will you continually seek out better skilled workers knowing that you will have to let go of the lower performing employees? Employees are quick to pick up on this; the first time you fire a "long-timer" in the shop for the reason that he does not measure up to the current standards attitudes will change among the staff. They will begin to compete for their job; this can result in an overly competitive environment. Employees will become cliquish and politics will become a bigger issue. This is especially true if you have more than 20 employees. One of the main functions of a Workers Union is to prevent this from happening. It is very difficult to fire an employee due to performance when there are unions involved.

On the other hand you can argue that this competitive workplace will attract and develop talented employees. Having a young eager work force that is interested in improving the status quo can lay the foundation to very powerful and dynamic companies. Look at companies like Google, Apple, IBM and especially the financial sector. It all depends on how you want to feel when you walk into your shop in the morning. Do you want your employees to be your friends? Do you want to see laughter and camaraderie? Do you want to see efficient talented employees that are working hard to make you more money? It is very difficult to honestly answer yes to all of these questions.

From contributor M:
I would find it very difficult to work in any environment where there are other employees who are not putting in 110%. All it takes is one C or D player to bring the whole team down to their level. Your best employees will all move on, and the B players will stop trying. The last thing I would want to do would be to work in a shop where tenured employees get away with performance that is "good enough". I think competition is a good thing.

From contributor C:
I'll try to get this out as concisely as possible. If you have 20 people (in woodworking), you will not have all A grade workers, nor will you have all workers with the potential to be A workers. On the other hand, you probably do not need all workers with master skills. What you do need is workers with commitment and dedication. I have a worker who has been doing the same job for me for over 20 years. He is great at what he does. Could he build a complicated conference table or credenza? No. What he does is a key part of our product line and he fills a need. He moves slow, and if you judged him by that, some may say he is a slacker, however he gets his work done and when we have a glut of orders, he rarely misses a due date, yet he seems to move slow.

You need to make sure your workers know that there are many skill levels and that they are compensated as such. Personally, I think a workers attitude about working is more important than his skill level, assuming his (possibly) limited skills have a place in your company. Some people are happy putting in their 40 and walking away, others have a bigger commitment work to a goal. We have both. Would I like 20 people with the same commitment as me, you bet! But they are hard to find, I may have 1/3 of my people at that level, and it seems to work here. At the same time do I want to pay someone $25 an hour to do simple assembly? Well, yes, but the cost would make the product too costly for our customer. Just have to be fair and balanced, and it's always changing. As far as down attitude people, they are toxic and we try for a bit to work things out, but I have no problem with thanking them and sending them on their way. Work hard and prosper.

From contributor L:
I can help an employee learn a skill but he has to try to learn. If he doesn't make an effort I can't teach him. There has to be desire that shows in his actions. Training spent on people whose only reason to show up is payday, is a waste. They should get a government job. Hire for attitude, develop skills. There are those that do try but just can't. I find it really difficult to part with them.

From contributor D:
"Where should the middle of the road workers go to improve and get to the next level?" If they have the desire, that is most of their battle. It is not my battle, though maybe some minor skirmishes are involved. They could start by asking their supervisor how they could improve their job performance, or how to be eligible for more money. They just have to keep their eyes and ears open, and in the age of the internet, their choices for self-development are infinite.

"If there is potential, would your organization foster that potential or simply pass it by and lose what could be a quality employee?Ē We simply have to make a seat-of-the-pants cost/benefit analysis. If the energy put into fostering potential was profitable, then it makes sense. Often this is simply answered by the question "do they actively listen, and absorb what you are saying into their job performance?" An employee that ignores your comments is only hampering their own progress, and is probably detrimental to the company.

From contributor W:
I hire for excellence, and then, instead of concentrating on training individual workers, have tried to turn us into a learning organization. We constantly try to develop new methods, and work on new products, and then disseminate whatever new knowledge is generated to all employees, by means of a weekly meeting where whatever is relevant is discussed with everyone. I'm not so interested in training individuals to do something unless it's necessary for that personís specialized role.

Here's how I hire: I have a test. It contains general math, reading, plan reading, simple woodworking knowledge questions, and machine identification. Anyone who has been in a shop for a couple of years, and is intelligent and careful about reading can score 100. My experience has been that the workers who will succeed in my shop will get that score. If they even score a 99, it's a big red flag. All of my current workers have scored 100. So I can honestly say that all of my guys are way above average compared to my competition, and that there is very little difference in their general woodworking abilities. There are definitely differences in personalities, and I try to assign duties to workers based on what they will do well, and try to avoid giving them tasks they will not do well. They can all build furniture, they are all hard workers, and they all get along. You would thank your stars if any of them worked for you.

The flip side of having good people is that you have to pay them and treat them well. If you are not prepared to do that, it's going to be difficult to have a consistently excellent work force. I don't intend to hire any B or C performers, ever again. Been there, done that. They were nice people but I'd rather hire the top people and not have to fix any issues with individuals. It was my opinion that most of the differences between B and A plus people are things that can't be trained away - like talent, diligence, and intelligence. It's tough to face the fact that we aren't all top grade. There are lots of situations that are designed to accommodate lower performers, generally larger companies that have the resources to set up systems that closely manage performance. I just don't have the resources to do that. Those systems are difficult to design and difficult to implement. Not necessarily something that every shop owner can figure out and put into place.

From contributor G:
By virtue of the fact that you are staying alive I would say you are doing more right than not. Getting the work out the door is what you have to do. The secondary thing is the training at first the most you can do is "I'm going to show you this once", later you can do more. I think it is always a process of get it done and then train, but most of us are so tired from the get it done part to have the energy to train.

Training should go from the top down I agree with your thinking on this. Also on the training in the sales, for sure sales is always number one. The marketplace changes so quickly that you cannot take your eye off of sales and marketing. An analogy of this is that if you get with a fire hose the force of the water will knock you down but if you can divert the force of the water into channels it is easier to manage. Organizing is the part where you divert the water into channels.