Layoff Advice for Business Managers: People Are Not Deadwood

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There’s some bad management advice gaining traction in this economic recession. It goes like this: If you are going to layoff employees, take the opportunity to get rid of the "deadwood." Sometimes advisors are a little more conscious of what the connotation "deadwood" conjures up, and they call it "top grading" or "increasing workforce competencies," but either way—a rose by any other name, as Shakespeare once said.

What’s wrong with this layoff practice? In the first place, people are not deadwood—inanimate objects to be discarded after their usefulness has subsided. Secondly, if you hired these employees because you thought they could make a valuable contribution to your organization, and now, after some period of time, you think otherwise, the problem may lie with you or other management. Very few job candidates go from being high-potential superstars to just taking up a seat overnight. Here are some possible reasons why you have unproductive employees and what you can do to avoid the problem in the future.

Some of My Job Candidates Were Bad Hires

Suppose you became aware shortly after the job candidate joined you that he was not going to work out. Maybe the experience the job candidate listed on his resume was slightly "embellished," or perhaps he doesn’t work well in an entrepreneurial environment. Bad hires happen all too frequently, especially when business managers are in a hurry to fill a position. What should you do to minimize hiring the wrong job candidate? Two suggestions: use behavioral interviewing and use multiple interviewers. Behavioral interviews begin with the identification of key knowledge, skills and attributes required for the position and ask for examples of when and where the candidate has demonstrated a specific competency in the past. Predicated on the fact that past performance is a good indicator of future behavior and performance, behavioral interviewers can probe details that a single interviewer asking only hypothetical questions cannot.

My Employee Started Out Great But Went Down Hill, Fast

If there’s been a sudden change in an employee’s behavior or performance, you may want to get professional assistance from human resources since there may be factors affecting this employee’s performance that are beyond your expertise. If, though, her performance has been deteriorating over time, ask yourself how clear you have been in articulating specific goals and job performance objectives and in providing both positive and corrective feedback. Sure, life would be wonderful if every employee knew exactly what she should do and how to do it and performed without your advice and guidance, but this isn’t reality. Ask yourself if the job requirements have changed or if you are expecting more productivity or different work methods. Perhaps with fewer employees providing output, you need her to work faster or longer hours, but you’ve never had that discussion or you’ve never told her that she wasn’t meeting your expectations. You assumed she could figure it out. Feedback is the "breakfast of champions," and open dialogue can often turn a mediocre employee into one whose performance significantly improves.

I Tried Everything, But He’s Still Not What I Need

OK, before your employee goes into your "deadwood headed for layoff" pile, ask yourself if you’ve offered training or considered whether his skills could be better utilized in another role. After all, with the costs of recruiting, hiring and training the average employee hovering at two to three-times his annual salary, you owe it to your bottom line to determine if he has the skills to do another job in the organization. Just don’t create another problem by moving your problem employee into another department—make sure he will be a good job candidate for that role.

None of the Above Applies to the Employee

You may still want to include unproductive employees in a workforce reduction. Just don’t make it your first choice. Ready, fire, aim rarely works!

Adapted from an article on