The Elephant in the Room

My first real job lasted for three years. It ended the day I was unceremoniously fired.

In retrospect, it was pretty clear I had it coming to me. I pushed everyone too hard. I didn’t tolerate fools at all, much less gladly. I ignored every warning, because “what did they know?” And it all ended the morning my CEO called me into his office to let me know that my services would no longer be needed.

Or at least it should have ended that morning.

You see, when I got fired I thought I could still beat the system. Having heard the old saw that it was easier to find a job while you still had one, I asked my boss to let me keep coming to work for another two months. Miraculously, he agreed.

And so began the great charade. For two months, I came to work each day pretending I still had my job, and for two months, everyone else pretended they didn’t know I had been fired. When my two months were up, I had to pretend that I was leaving of my own volition, and everyone else had to pretend they weren’t glad to see me go.

It was absurd for everyone. And once the glow of having outfoxed the company faded, I quickly realized that my great triumph was in fact a great mistake. Unable to move on with my life, and with nothing interesting to do, I was locked into a 60-day sentence pushing paper at a company that clearly didn’t want me.

It was just as bad for my co-workers, who had to go through the motions of working with me, all the while avoiding any mention of the elephant in the room. But without question, the person whose reputation took the biggest hit was the CEO who had agreed to this nonsense in the first place.

Since most of the company knew within fifteen minutes that I had been fired, they wondered why the CEO was so stupid as to allow the charade of my employment continue. Why was he making them continue to work with someone clearly not good enough to work at the company? For the people who somehow hadn’t yet figured out that I was fired, the CEO’s attitude was even more puzzling. Why hadn’t he fired me? Why would he tolerate someone with such a bad attitude sticking around?

Only in retrospect was it clear to me that an act intended to allow me to depart with dignity had exactly the opposite effect.

I was reminded of this story a few weeks ago, when I learned that a company I know of was “letting go” one of their VPs. Even though his performance was substandard, he was a “nice guy” and they wanted him to be able to “leave with respect.” So the head of HR explained they weren’t firing him; they were simply going to “eliminate his position.”

What a crock of shit.

But it gets better. To further reinforce the illusion that this departure had nothing to do with the employee, the VP would continue to come to work every day for the following month.

This was an even worse idea.

To start, there was a very significant chance that the VP would go to work for a competitor, so continuing to give him access to company data was foolish at best. But even worse, just as in my case thirty years earlier, this was a no-win situation for everybody. Since it was obvious to everyone in the company that this person was not performing, no one believed the CEO’s cover story about the position being eliminated.

It’s hard for an employee to leave a company with respect when the entire workforce is rolling its eyes. And forget about softening the blow for the employee — he knew exactly what was happening, and within minutes was emailing his close friends with the news that he’d been fired.

The biggest loser in this story was the company itself, which had signaled loud and clear to every employee that this was a place where it was OK to sugarcoat the truth. If the CEO himself was signaling that it was OK for everyone to play along with such a blatant misrepresentation, where was that going to stop? Would it be OK for sales to give invented reasons for deals not closing to spare the engineers’ feelings rather than address true product shortcomings? Would finance not want to communicate the true weaknesses in a business unit’s P&L to avoid making a GM look bad?

Companies make a big point of how their culture is all about “bad news first,” but when it comes to people, they are suddenly scared to communicate bad news out of some mistaken feeling of politeness or political correctness.

The truth of the matter is that when it comes to firing someone, you’re not fooling anybody. You know it’s not working. The employee knows it’s not working. And everyone who works with that person knows it’s not working.

That’s why putting someone on a “plan” is an even bigger waste of time.  You both know that the odds of an underperforming employee successfully turning things around is miniscule — you’re just writing the script of how you intend to have them hang themselves in order to absolve yourself of any moral responsibility for saying the thing that both of you know is true: That it’s just “not working out.”

Netflix is famous for its corporate culture, which rightly emphasizes directness and personal responsibility. In my book about the early years, That Will Never Work, I describe a particularly brutal round of layoffs in the year before we went public. We nearly cut the staff in half in one day. It was really difficult.

But it was quick, it was direct, and we did it for a reason. We provided generous settlements, shook hands with every fired employee, and wished each of them good luck. And in the end, that’s the true sign of respect for someone.

It was the same with employees who, for whatever reason, just weren’t working out. We didn’t let the elephant stay in the room for very long. Instead, we made a decision that benefited the company culture, the leadership’s reputation, and the employee’s dignity.

That’s because Netflix had figured out something that is fundamentally true: Honesty and directness will do a lot more good than half-assed deception.

By being courageous enough to state the difficult truth, the most important reputation that you will preserve is your own.

That Will
NEVER Work

The real-life, totally improbable story of Netflix’s early days, told in Marc Randolph’s unconventional, engaging, inspiring style. A vivid primer on the realities of startup ventures, and a seriously entertaining read.

That Will
NEVER Work