Whenever something goes wrong, politicians demand someone get fired. If the Democrats are in charge the Republicans demand someone get fired and vice versa. There’s an Ebola outbreak in Africa and one person treated in a Texas hospital died, so fire the head of the national Center for Disease Control in Atlanta! Ambassador Stevens was killed in Benghazi so it must have been Clinton’s fault. It’s easy to strike a pose of moral outrage, blame and action – fire so and so; it was on her watch. But then what?
I’ve been a manager and I’ve fired people. But firing isn’t a simple answer to every problem. Some kinds of mistakes are inexcusable – taking money, framing or killing people. But how often are prosecutors ousted for framing people or police for killing them? The U.S. Supreme Court has recently gone to bat for the most despicable prosecutors, who hid evidence that would have freed people on death row. Hey we don’t fire prosecutors, only faceless bureaucrats or department heads from the other side.
In most cases, I’d like to know what went wrong. Are we dealing with deadwood, people too tired or lazy to figure out what to do? Was the problem a legitimate effort to solve a problem, or looking the other way and papering it over? Lawyers lose half the cases that go to trial. Some in difficult areas lose more. Fire them? And with it the accumulating expertise that led to breakthrough litigation against the cigarette companies and similar corporate malfeasance with which we are becoming all too familiar. Sometimes what we label as mistakes are first efforts, like an early drug or vaccine trial – the “mistakes” are important; they give us the knowledge to move toward a better answer.
My father-in-law, who died some years ago, ran an outlet store in North Carolina for many years. He once commented to me that there were people at the store who could have been fired but it was cheaper and more effective to educate them, partly because he knew he would not be able to get better people. Will the new person, whether the head of a department or a sales clerk, make similar mistakes? Or another high-risk gamble? What are we getting with a change?
Management of a nonprofit or a government agency has other problems as well. People aren’t there for the big bucks. What inspires good work is a sense of mission. Firing good people when they make mistakes has a real cost in morale. If they are people who care, there are many positive steps an administrator can take to solve problems and improve performance. When I shared responsibility for a couple of hundred lawyers in New York City, I responded to problems with training programs. And in the process we learned a great deal about why some of our offices had more success in certain kinds of cases than others – one of my favorite examples had nothing to do with the caliber of the lawyers but the fact that in a prior round of budget cuts, one office had not let its social workers go and they made a huge difference in family cases.
One can manage by firing people. And there are sometimes very good reasons to fire people like those prosecutors. But firing people any time they make a mistake is a recipe for yes-men afraid to think and bound only to play by the book. In other words it can be very demoralizing. As a strategy, it stinks.
The real world is more complex than political posturing. But there is one thing we all get a chance to do, vote – see you at the polls.
— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, November 4, 2014.