“Firing is the best way to get good workers”

Is it, though? The mantrum you hear every where these days is: To get good workers and good work an employer must be able to fire workers. That means just-cause employment, tenure, and union grievance procedures are on the firing line, because, they, well, stand in the way of the “firing” line.

NPR reporter Claudio Sanchez can barely report a story that advocates this position. For example, on March 18, his story starts with:

Michele Rhee, the District of Columbia’s public schools chancellor, has done a lot to shake up schools in the nation’s capital.
. . .
So Rhee is intent on attracting young teachers who aren’t vested in the old contractual arrangements with the teachers’ union, which Rhee thinks is getting in the way of her reform efforts.


Now, it may be that Claudio Sanchez is just confused and doesn’t understand that all just cause, grievance procedures, and tenure get an employee is the rights to be fired

1. only because the employee has done a bad job
2. only if there is business necessity, such as financial troubles
3. only after a fair demonstration that these facts exist, otherwise known as due process

These rights do not get you a job for life. They do not give the right to keep a job even when a worker is incompetent. So essentially what Rhee wants and what Sanchez advocates is the right of employers to fire workers on whim and with no proof that the worker is not doing a good job.

They assume that workers will only do a good job if they are terrified of losing their jobs.

There is a lot to unpack about those assumptions about workers. It assumes that workers are slackers. It assumes that bosses are always right. It assumes that unions and tenure are our enemies. If Sanchez and Rhee and others who espouse these views are wrong, then they are leading us down the primrose path to bad outcomes.

These untested assumptions miss a lot about most workers. And because they miss key information, they will lead to a system that is detrimental to progress and productivity. Consider that the periods of highest union density in the US, from the early 1950s through the 1970s were also periods of progress and innovation.

An interesting study by Kelly Services, ironically, tells us why Rhee, Sanchez, and others who take this view are barking up the wrong tree and missing the forest for the trees and maybe in danger of setting on fire the trees that make up that beautiful forest.

The survey reveals a widespread desire for more meaningful roles in the workplace. Approximately half (51 percent) of those surveyed are prepared to accept a lower wage or a lesser role if their work contributes to something ‘more important or meaningful.’

Here are some of the summary findings of the Kelly Services study.

Around the world . . .

51 percent of Gen Y are prepared to accept a lower wage or a lesser role if their work contributes to something more important or meaningful.

62 percent of Gen X plan to look for a new job within a year.

46 percent of baby boomers say their career goals are not being advanced in their current job

In North America . . .

Across North America, 92 percent say they derive a sense of pride from their work, the highest of the three global regions in the survey.

Almost half (49 percent) will sacrifice pay and position for more meaningful work, with Gen Y and males the most willing to do so.

Some 45 percent say they intend to look for another job within the next year, however, the proportion in the U.S. (40 percent) planning to change jobs is the lowest of any country in the survey.

Some 40 percent are worried that their current job is not meeting their long term career goals, with baby boomers the most alarmed.

If you scroll down the Kelly Services report, you will see interesting differences based on geography and age cohort, but also many similarities of view.

So maybe what explains any successes in turning workplaces around and making them do good work is actually good leadership, inspiration, and meaningful work to do.

And that is because workers want is to be inspired. They want to be part of something bigger than themselves. They want to live meaningful lives, and work is part of what gives us meaning.

So, to get back to the untested assumptions trotted out by Sanchez, Rhee, and others, isn’t the issue why they think employers can only succeed is by firing good workers and by having no fair process to check whether the employer’s assumptions are correct. Only employers who are not good managers and unfair autocrats need these rights. Good employers will only want to fire workers who are not doing a good job or if there is financial exigency.

So, isn’t time we asked why we need to protect bad managers and bad employers?

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