Hiring Versus Firing - Scott Adams' Blog

Hiring Versus Firing

Imagine a manager who is excellent at identifying and hiring talent but not so good at firing the people who need it. Compare that situation to a manager who does an average job of hiring but is spectacular at weeding out the bad apples in the group. All other things being equal, which manager will do better?

Here’s the summary:

Manager 1: Great at hiring, average at firing

Manager 2: Great at firing, average at hiring

I’m going to cast my vote for the manager who does a better job of firing than hiring. My reasoning is that one can never know for sure who will be a good hire because people are skilled at concealing their personality flaws during interviews. Once hired, people feel free to let their inner assholes out. So hiring is an extraordinarily imprecise process.

Firing, on the other hand, is far more objective. Ask any group of employees who among them needs to be fired and most people will turn and point to the same guy. While it’s hard to know who you should hire, it can be easy to know who to fire. The manager who is good at firing only needs the cold-hearted resolve to do it in a timely manner. There generally isn’t much doubt about who should be fired.

I also wonder if one person can have the skill to be good at hiring and also good at firing. I would think that knowing who to hire requires a high degree of social empathy. The skilled interviewer makes a connection through conversation and eye contact and “feels” the other person. A manager who is socially talented might pick up little clues from an applicant that others would miss, such as arrogance or deceptiveness or moral flexibility.

On the other hand, a manager who is good at firing might be high on the sociopath scale. Where the socially talented manager would find it intolerably painful to look someone in the eye and fire them, the sociopath sees it as just another Tuesday. Common sense tells us the sociopath would pull the trigger sooner and get rid of the bad apples.

In my corporate experience, which included perhaps a dozen or more work groups, I never thought to myself that we could do better if only we could hire some superstars. Instead, I always thought we needed to get rid of a few obvious duds and trouble-makers and everything would flow smoothly after that.

Keep in mind that I never worked in a group that was inventing the next smartphone or doing anything sexy. We didn’t need geniuses. We just needed to get the work done.

Over time, the manager who fires best will end up with top talent through a survival-of-the-fittest process.

Obviously I’ve oversimplified things. But if you accept that firing is more critical than hiring, I will move on to my point.

Given that firing might be more important than hiring, and given that employees are well-aware of who among them needs to be fired, it suggests a better system. As with most of my ideas, it is entirely impractical but fun to think about.

Imagine that instead of managers making firing decisions, only the employees themselves make those decisions as a group. And let’s say the job of managers is to set targets for the number of people in the group who need to be fired by what deadline. For example, if you have a hundred employees in a group, and the group hasn’t performed well, the manager might say 10% have to be voted out of the group by year end. If the group is performing well, the manager might set the target at 5%.

In my corporate days I learned that coworkers don’t have much reason to be nice to one another. But you would be nice to anyone who had a vote on your future. You might even be proactive in doing well by your coworkers because that’s the sort of thing that gets remembered at voting time.

I realize that managers already take input from employees on what they think of coworkers, but that turns into a lot of he-said, she-said. And coworkers generally don’t say a coworker is toxic even if that is the only word that describes it. Instead, you tell your manager that Bob is spreading rumors, or not returning phone calls, or whatever is the specific crime, and your boss treats it as isolated cases that can surely be managed. A manager will usually give both sides the benefit of the doubt. But if employees make their own collective firing decisions, no manager would be involved to water-down, distort, or delay the process. You simply vote the toxic guy out.

There are already a number of companies who set firing targets. But managers are still in charge of execution. And those systems tend to be draconian because the level of firing is independent of the group’s performance.

Under my proposed system, in which the manager sets firing targets based on performance, and employees make firing decisions, you create an interesting new dynamic. Under the old system, if my coworker does bad work it is mostly his problem so long as my manager sees me as a good worker. I’ll get my raise even if the other guy doesn’t. Under my system, the group has a collective goal of convincing the manager that the firing level should be set as zero. Employees have a common enemy of sorts in the manager. I would think that would be good for teamwork.

What do you think of a system in which managers set firing targets and employees decide who goes?