Time to Say Goodbye: Are You Keeping the Bad and Terminating the Good?

Jan 27, 2009
This article is part of a series called News & Trends.

Any manager who takes an honest look at individual performance knows all employees are not created equally. About 20% of employees rise to the top of the heap; 20% drop to the bottom; and the rest hang around in the middle doing only enough to attract attention.

Employee-productivity differences have attracted their share of researchers. Most agree that folks in the top half of workers out-produce the bottom half by about 2:1 (i.e., it makes no difference if people are shuffling papers or making widgets). And, when managers and knowledge workers are examined separately, the productivity ratio rises to 3:1, 4:1, or higher (i.e., responsible jobs have bigger ratios).

Productivity is more than a mental exercise. It shows up as absenteeism, errors, reduced throughput, turnover, low morale, rework, an excess number of employees, and so forth. Productivity losses are also sneaky because they are not easily seen; yet, they translate into hard cash: between 20% of base annual payroll leaked for unskilled workers to 50% for skilled and managerial employees — enough to separate a successful organization from a flop.

Converting payroll leakage into gross sales can be an even bigger eye-opener. Twenty percent leakage, for an organization that pays out 1/5 of its gross sales in salaries and benefits, would require a 500% sales increase to balance the books. Want to do more scary math? Calculate the incremental sales necessary to offset a 50% leak in managers and professional salaries!

Enter Financial Chaos and Uncertainty

We are in serious financial times. Opinions vary, but experts estimate our financial stress will last throughout 2009 and perhaps into 2010. The prosperity party is over. Like the dot-com bust, the world changed virtually overnight.

We cannot do much about external economic factors except dig in and wait. But, we can do something about employee productivity, especially when it comes to intelligent downsizing.

Ah’ll be Baack!

There are two ways to downsize. Most managers are accustomed to the Rambo model: plunge into the organization armed with rocket launchers, machine guns, and grenades terminating anyone in the line of fire. At the end of the rampage, the gross payroll body count is reduced; but, since both high- and low-producers are terminated without regard to skills, the organization continues to live with its 20% to 50% cash hemorrhage. Rambo-sizing is the norm.

What about examining employee performance before making termination decisions? Everyone knows performance recommendations are part fact and part fiction. Promotions and performance ratings are almost always based on personality and popularity — not specific skills. Just examine organizations that Rambo-sized their workforce in the past. What effect did it have other than forcing fewer people to spend more time at work? Termination decisions done without future planning are like bloodletting to rid the body of bad humours … they are more likely to kill than cure.

Planning Ahead

If management takes the time and HR is able to competently manage the solution, downsizing can actually help the organization get healthy and stay that way. It’s more like Mr. Spock than Rambo. It is rationally based. It begins by clearly defining the skills the company wants to leave in the past and acquire in the future. Here is an example.

We’reAllThatMatters is a legend unto itself. Employees generally want to work there because they can brag about the big-name. Unfortunately, people (read customers) outside the organization have a different opinion. Employees often treat customers rudely and without respect. For example, even if We’reAllThatMatters’ buggy bookkeeping system overcharges a customer 400%, employees treat anyone who complains as if it was his or her fault.

Now the organization must cut back its workforce due to economic conditions. Should it Rambo-size its employees? Should it ask managers for their subjective opinions about who stays and who goes? Should it amputate whole divisions? Since We’reAllThatMatters’ has been around some time, a majority of terminated employees may be over 40, raising the possibility of a nasty class-action suit. What to do?

Rambo-sizing would be a serious long-term mistake. The payroll would shrink, but both skilled and unskilled employees would suffer the same fate. Customer-sensitive as well as customer-insensitive employees would be terminated equally. We’reAllThatMatters’ payroll would shrink, but payroll hemorrhage would continue unabated. Logical-sizing would be different.

We’reAllThatMatters would a take hard look at itself and honestly calculate the financial impact of poor customer service on future business. It would then develop some key job profiles containing both technical competencies to do the job as well as customer service competencies it wants to build and retain. When this is complete, it would move on to the next step.

Employee-Level Evaluation

Individual employees would have his or her performance objectively evaluated using the list of necessary competencies as a target. For example, customer-centric skills might be evaluated by gathering past examples of service (e.g., similar to behavioral event interviewing), reviewing performance appraisals (to the extent they might include relevant information), giving tests, administering surveys, and so forth.

The secret to success would be to evaluate the skill set of every employee using an objective standard based on the organization’s tactical plan. Results for each employee would be anonymized and independently reviewed by a few highly competent managers. Employees who matched the profile would be retained, and those who did not would be reassigned or laid off.

Smart-sizing could be done with competencies such as analytical skills to develop better problem-solvers, initiative to encourage operational improvements, teamwork to develop better internal working relationships, creativity to foster new ideas and designs … the list goes on.

Final Question

However, there is a price to pay. HR has to develop the skills to help managers analyze and clarify the skills needed. It has to become proficient in accurately measuring competencies (real ones, not garden variety stuff), and it has to professionally manage the process. Managers have a price to pay too. They must have the patience to work through the details of smart-sizing, dedicate the energy and commitment to making sure the process is followed, and be able to clearly define the future at the employee level.

The outcome of this initiative is a smart-sized operation; in other words, the skills of the employees are intelligently aligned with the objectives of the organization. Overall, this should result in fewer employees doing more work (because each employee will be more skilled), less turnover (because employees will be more satisfied), fewer mistakes, better quality, and so forth.

The final question faced by everyone in the operation is whether saving 20% to 50% of base payroll is worth abandoning Rambo-sizing for smart-sizing.

This article is part of a series called News & Trends.