Stanley Bing

A tale of three firings

Don't let sentiment (or fear) get in the way of the firing the guy who's gumming up the works, says Fortune's Stanley Bing.

By Stanley Bing

(Fortune Magazine) -- Firing people may be the hardest task a manager has to do, for while it can be relatively easy to decruit a group of individuals at a distance, nobody likes the prospect of having to execute another person one-on-one. Joseph Stalin, who was as good at it as any senior manager in history, put it perfectly: "The death of one man is a tragedy. The death of millions is a statistic." Stalin might have been the worst guy ever to work for, but at least he wasn't guided by sentiment. And good for him, I say. This is business, not preschool.

These thoughts come to mind now that Larry has finally been excised from our corporation. Larry ran our dispensable-rotating-objects division in the Midwest. We acquired it a few years ago, and with it came Larry, its chief executive. From the start he didn't know what it meant to work as a team. You could feel his bad vibrations all the way from Minneapolis on a conference call. He never volunteered information. His people were secretive. His numbers stank.

It's been clear for several years that Larry was a tumor on the body of the enterprise. And yet he stayed on, and on, and on, until finally his act got just too old, and wham! now he's out of here. I think he was permitted to gunk things up for so long for two reasons: (1) Nobody had a better idea of what to do with his job, and (2) It's really hard to fire another manager face-to-face.

When I got to this iteration of my job more than ten years ago, there was a guy here I'll call Mort. Mort used to run the department; now he was going to be my No. 2. I thought it would be possible to work with Mort. He was as smart as he needed to be. He had seasoning. He knew the organization. I was a little scared of life without him.

When I took over, my then boss, Paul, said, "You're going to have to fire Mort." "No!" I said. "I can work with him. It'll be fine."

I hit the ground running, reaching out to folks, asking for their take on things, reorganizing stuff. Week two, Mort came in and said to me, "You're talking to the staff." I admitted this was true. "That's not the way it works," Mort said. "You talk to me. I talk to the staff." I told him no, that was most certainly not the way things were going to go. He scowled and went away. I could feel him glowering at the other end of the hall, in the smaller office to which he had been consigned. People dropped by. His door closed. There was laughter behind it. After a week my friend Roger, who heads up another function, dropped by.

"You're going to have to fire Mort," he said. "He's plotting against you. Making fun of you to your people. Running a shadow department."

A month went by. Things got worse. Finally I determined to move. The night before, I didn't sleep at all. Here was a guy with a good track record, two kids in private school, a mortgage.

"Mort, it's pretty clear to me that we have a different conception of what your job is supposed to be," I said to him the next morning as he sat in front of me with a condescending expression.

"Wait a minute," he said, incredulous. "Are you firing me?"

"Yes, Mort," I said. "I'm firing you."

"You can't fire me," said Mort. "Paul will protect me!" This made me feel better. Mort was going to be a dork about it and challenge me again.

"Go see Paul," I said, with steel in my heart.

"I will!" he replied. And burst into tears, which pretty much made me never want to do this kind of thing again.

Mort went to see Paul, was told his true status, and departed. I should have killed him first chance I got. It was the right business decision. I should not have delayed.

I applaud my friend Johanson, who runs a creative enterprise out in L.A. Last month he brought in a president to run daily operations. Very exciting hire. Got big press. About a week into the deal, it was clear that the fish was beginning to stink from the head. Staff in an uproar. So one morning in the midst of what was supposed to be the new underboss's honeymoon, Johanson called him in and promoted him to a consulting role in the company's think tank in Bora Bora. Brought in somebody else. Now they're back on track. Bing-bang-boom. Just like that.

My conclusion? Foot soldiers should be given all the time they need to get things right or wrong. Big guys? For them, God made big green parachutes.

STANLEY BING's new book, Crazy Bosses (Collins), is available at finer bookstores everywhere. He can be reached at and on his Web site,  Top of page

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