Firing an employee often serves as a leader’s most visible evidence of their commitment to the Mission or shared purpose. This difficult act often leaves a trail of devastation for the terminated employee and can haunt the empowered manager for a lifetime. Emotional, life-changing actions are noticed; and, when an employee threatens the Mission or shared purpose of an organization (the greater good), they need to go!
A leader who fails to embrace this difficult and necessary action sends the unwitting message that employees who undermine the Mission are tolerated. That leads to a culture that does not “fuse” together around a shared purpose and can lead to a culture of mediocrity and under-performance. This task of necessary firings is particularly gut wrenching when an employee is otherwise working hard and demonstrating they share the commitment to the organization’s purpose.
Once in a rare while, the toughest reality of leadership happens easily and quickly. Ray Davis, executive chairman of Umpqua Bank, shares a remarkable and memorable example. He tells me that the morning after he fired an employee he was greeted with applause and a standing ovation when he entered the office! Really, a standing ovation? For firing an employee?
Davis tells the story of cutting a vacation short because he received a call, informing him that an employee was terrorizing the office and half of the accounting staff was about to walk out. Many were crying. This particular employee, Mike, had caused trouble before and was known to harass female employees with ‘off-color’ remarks.
Davis vividly remembers the following day, after flying home early. Davis told me: “I remember going into the office—and one of the rules that I [had] in my company is that when we have casual days like Friday, you can come in casual but you can’t wear Levi’s into our bank. If you work for us, no Levi’s. I don’t want to see that. But that day I had Levi’s on, and I walked right upstairs to the executive offices and Julie (his assistant). I didn’t say hello to anybody. I said to her, ‘Julie, where’s Mike?’
She told Davis he was in a meeting with a large, well-known public accounting firm in a nearby conference room.
“‘Great,’ I said. I opened up the door, and there he was.
“I said, ‘Mike, can see you?’
“‘No, we’re in a meeting,’ he said.
“‘I need to see you,’ I told him.
“He must have been thinking, ‘What’s this? Ray’s not due back yet. And, what’s he doing in Levi’s?’
“I walked him to my office, and I said, ‘You’re fired, and I want your ass out of this bank now!’
“And he started to say, ‘Oh, this is about…’
“I said, ‘Yeah, we‘re not going to talk about it. You’re done. I want you out.’
“‘Well, let me go get my stuff.’
“‘No, get out now. I will make arrangements to have someone call you and meet you back here after everybody’s gone so you can get all your stuff out without causing a scene.’”
Davis told me that it was a brutal encounter, an extreme case. “Boy, it was,” he said. “I mean, he was out of there. And I went in to the accounting guys and said, ‘Meeting’s canceled.’”
Davis didn’t need to hear Mike’s side of the story because he had enough confidence in his assistant to know that all that she’d said was true. “I was not going to go in and have him try to explain it away,” he said. “That would have been a waste of my time. It happened. I knew it happened. If he wanted to make a big deal out of it afterwards, fine.”
He told his assistant that he’d fired Mike and that he needed to go home, but asked her to tell the accounting people he’d meet with them first thing in the morning. The next day when the CEO walked into the office, wearing a business suit instead of Levi’s, his employees, who had gotten wind that Mike was gone, greeted him with loud applause and a standing ovation.
This story is not about a good employee v a bad employee. And it’s not about right and wrong. This is about the critical importance of the leader evidencing their commitment to the shared purpose of an organization. It’s about the leader evidencing their commitment to the employees and a healthy culture.
Davis cut his vacation short in order to protect his team. Davis understood the importance of acting decisively and acting with urgency. Davis shares many other stories that shed light on leadership behaviors that “fuse” teams together and these can be found in the book Davis helped me write, Fusion Leadership.
No single action by a leader better evidences his or her commitment to one’s team and the leader’s commitment to the organization’s purpose than terminating another employee. Often this is a gut-wrenching reality of leadership. And sometimes it happens easily and quickly.
The key is to act with the interests of your organization and your team’s shared purpose as your north star.