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Fire the C Team

The last month I’ve given a talk entitled “Do More with Less”in a number of cities across the country. In the talk, I offer 13 ways agencies can “Do More with Less.”

What’s interesting is the #1 most popular idea I present is always “Fire the C Team”

My simple thinking is this: We can no longer afford to keep unproductive government workers on the payroll. There is simply too much work to do & too little budget. We should double our effort to put unperforming workers on performance improvement plans and if they do not improve, fire them.

Think about it – in an office of ten people where everyone is expected to take 10 furlough days, if you fire one unperforming worker, that’s one less furlough day for everyone. That $100,000 salary plus benefits could be replaces with a junior worker at half the cost and twice the productivity.”

Netflix represents this philosophy perfectly in their Culture document (a document so important that Sheryl Sandberg of Facebook said “may well be the most important document ever to come out of the Valley”).

In this document, they discuss the Keeper Test where each quarter their managers look at all their employees and ask “Which of my people if they told me they were leaving, would I fight hard to keep at Netflix?” They give raises to the folks they’d fight for and the other people get a generous severance to leave now so they can open a slot to try to find a start in that role.

What do you think of the Keeper Test?
Should government fire the C Team?

How would you deal with poor performers if it was up to you?

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Alan Pentz

It sounds great on paper but firing people is a full time job in government. You have to be realistic about the paperwork and all the back and forth. I’ve seen lots of federal managers go through the termination process and it isn’t pretty. It still needs to be done but don’t underestimate the effort involved.

Henry Brown

As Mr. Pentz says rather indirectly, there is a significant cost that needs to be evaluated prior to going down this path. Especially if the supervisors/managers have NOT been doing thier job all along!

Have found that sometimes, additional effort to find the right posistion on the team will pay off, especially in the short term, and in some cases provides significant return on investment

Dick Davies

Excellent post.

Another point-of-view might be, “Yes government can, but that doesn’t mean that government should.”

Too many government-initiaited tasks that are replacing existing effective civic functions for ineffective government functions predicated on government expansion without considering quality of product.

Government has an unfair advantage, They don’t have customers who can fire ’em for nonperformance.

Peter Sperry

How are you defining the C team? OPM ratings include 1. Does not meet standards, 2. Minimally successful, 3. Fully successful, 4. Exceeds standards, 5. Outstanding. It is difficult, but possible to fire 1s with time determination and documentation. It is almost impossible to fire 2s but sometimes they can be pressured to retire, quit or transfer. The 3s would be the C team and managers just have to live with them. The 4s and 5s are the B and A team.

It might also be useful to learn how much private sector organizations spend on labor lawyers and wrongful termination lawsuites when they consistently fire C team employees who meet established performance standards, albeit at mediocre levels. Even Jack Welch had difficulty making this type of policy work at GE and backed off to only firing the bottom 10%.

“Fire the C team” works extraordinarily well in PowerPoint presentations or small companies that can fly under the radar screens of labor lawyers. Managers in real government agencies or medium to large corporations are happy if they can fire the F team, push out the D team, live with the C team, train the B team and fully support the A team. There are of course corporate exceptions but not many and they tend to keep lawyers fully employed.

Dannielle Blumenthal

It is a very big leap from the thesis “fire unproductive workers” to the reality of evaluating true productivity. Some employees are productive but not in ways that are listed in their job description – such as those who simply boost the morale of everybody else. Example – Read about “Zach Galifianakis’ Red Carpet Date”

Others do crap work that nobody else will do, that doesn’t need to get done, but that the organization requires. They are productive in the sense that they create social stability.

Still others are eager to learn and contribute but make too many mistakes to really generate much in the way of results. They will generate results in the future, but not now.

So what about truly unproductive workers?

Perhaps we should consider seriously evaluating those at the top of the pay scale. If they are receiving a disproportionate share of salary they should be held accountable for generating disproportionately high results, productivity or outcomes.

Put simply, what that means is it should cost more to fire them than to have them on board.

Examples of highly productive executives are those who find ways to achieve results innovatively, cut costs, reduce duplication of effort, and eliminate unnecessary processes.

Some executives simply “coast” by, but they are highly productive anyway because their institutional value cannot be replaced and it would cost too much to figure out what they can tell you in five minutes. Or, they are highly networked and can leverage relationships to get things done. Again, a simple conversation that leads to a working relationship can save years of useless effort down the road.

Some people are paid a great deal of money and they are not only unproductive, but they actually detract from productivity. They don’t add anything valuable to the organization. They insist on doing things in ways that waste time, effort and sap motivation. And unfortunately sometimes they abuse people in the workplace, leading otherwise highly productive workers to be sapped of morale and causing costly litigation for the organization down the road.

To my mind, if you’re looking for ways to eliminate unproductive workers, it makes the most sense to start with highly paid workers that detract from the productivity of everybody else.

Claire Blaustein

I’m reading these comments, and understand that firing someone in the government takes a great deal of effort….but why is that a reason not to do something?

It seems suspect that that effort is greater than the time loss and emotional drain placed on the high-performing members of a department who have to compensate for that C team.

And if the standards are low enough that someone has to be truly incompetent to be underperforming, perhaps looking at the standards is the first step.

Eric W. Logan

The comments below are assumed to be in an environment operating at a stable employment level rather than actively downsizing.

#1 As stated by previous posts, define “C”. If you are going to use the measure used by some in the private sector “The lowest 10% of performers” (A=top 20%, B=middle 70%, C=bottom 10%) – Then I’d say don’t go there, or at least have an exit strategy in year 2 or 3. Here’s why: Thie first time you do this, you are likely to actually target underperforming workers. Not a bad thing. However if you do this every year, you begin to taget people who are simply not “high flyers” but are perfectly acceptable to the standards you have set. Now all you have introduced is uncertainty andf churn (since the “standard” must move to keep up with this practice.) “Raising the Bar” is legitimate and important, but it is better to do that with competent leadership rather than “you can’t keep up” threats. If “C” means “does not meet expectations” (rather than you are at the bottom of people meeting expectations), then why are you even having this discussion?

#2 Develop competent leadership and either improve underperformers or manage underperformers out of the organization. Setting some arbitraty A/B/C classification and see who falls out is simply lazy management and absence of leadership. There is nothing wrong with A/B/C/D/E rankings and they should align to performance reviews. During times of downsizing, these rankings are crucial to being fair to the people, organization, and taxpayers. Any other reason for putting public sector workers on the same threat-based management plans as some famous private sector environments is simply wrong. Yes, we need to set high standards and help train and develop our people to meet and exceed those standards. We need to trim dead wood, or better stated, help people transition out of our organizations where there is a bad match.

I’ve worked in A/B/C organizations. It worked well at first and actually raised my game as a supervisor and leader. It forced better conversastions and honest appraisals. However after the first couple of rounds, when you had to look someone in the eye and say “You met all of our expectations. You did everything asked. You just are not as good as the people who ranked higherthan you”, it just felt evil, and I didn’t want to be a part of that.

Terry Brill

I think the real question is why some insist that government do more. If the sovereign people want less government, reduced spending, fewer government employees, fewer projects, and less government involvement in their lives, then why insist that government do more. Government should do less with less. That will provide an opportunity to better understand what government does. Then perhaps the people will have a rational discussion about what it takes to adequately fund governement projects. Or not.

Stacey Coburn Yonce

Love this post. It is a conversation that needs to be had, over and over again, until people understand this is required in a healthy organization.

Firing also doesn’t need to be the go-to. Clearly defined performance expectations and informal discussions about problems need to happen first. Eliminating “automatic” issuance of awards, ladder promotions, and good performance evaluations is a good step. Demotions would work, too, especially where someone with strong technical skills has been promoted to a management position for which s/he has no training or interest. Sometimes managers are the “C Team.” We need to look there first.

I have seen this happen in government, albeit rarely. People who say it won’t work are part of the problem.