This picture and the caption added to it got me thinking.
I often challenge people when they take a strong ethical stand on business issues. The reason I do it is because often, views on a situation change as you learn more about it… so taking too strong a stand one day makes it difficult to pull back later, once you’ve learned “better.”
The photo linked above is a perfect example of how ethics can get messy; one could imagine both sides of the pro-choice/pro-life movement suddenly arguing an exception to the rule.
Business affords us many similar situations. If you’ve ever had to fire a great performer for bad behavior—or a positive culture shaper who just couldn’t deliver the goods—you’ve lived through one of the most gut-wrenching.
Not every employee can be a superstar. The laws of probability indicate that eventually, you’ll need to relax your hiring standards and grab someone who isn’t three standard deviations above the norm. And typically, “average” doesn’t mean “universally average in all respects,” it means “strong in some areas, weaker in others; average on the whole.” (Worse, as a leader, you may be blind to the bad behavior for some time… there are lots of reasons bad behaviors may be hidden from you, the impact of which is, by the time you get around to making the decision, a pattern of behavior has taken root.)
So, is it ethical to fire the jerk? What if doing so has a material impact on the company’s revenues and puts other peoples’ jobs at risk? By the same token, is firing the nice guy ethical? What if, despite his own lack of performance, he has a direct and positive impact on the performance of others?
Should you be firing anyone at all?
Because what if you’re wrong about who the jerks are in the first place? What if you’re the jerk, and the guy you don’t like is the one guy who’s actually holding you in line?
“These are the times that try men’s souls.” If you’re going to make solid decisions at a time like this, you’re going to remember to keep a few things in mind:
- Be humble. There may be an ethical component to your decision process, but it’s not black-and-white, and your sense of morality is not beyond reproach.
- Be consistent. When things are tough and emotions run high, people need predictability more than ever. Folks are going to wonder who they can trust; whether they like your decisions or not, it’ll be easier for them to trust you if they know what they’re going to get.
- Be human. When making a tough decision, it is OK to acknowledge the suckiness of the situation. In fact, it’s probably a good idea to do so.
- Be inquisitive. With the Big Chair come the Big Decisions, but that doesn’t mean that you should make them entirely behind a closed door. Get out and collect as much information as you can first… especially if firing someone, remember that you are predisposed to keep people around you who you like… but these may not be the people you need. Get some outside opinions before pulling the trigger.
Ethics is one of those subjects that looks pretty black and white from a distance, but entirely gray at close range. With just a little change to the facts, it’s possible to get everyone to switch sides… so if facing an “ethical” decision that doesn’t involve illegality, be humble, consistent, human, and inquisitive.
Jason Seiden is CEO of Ajax Workforce Marketing. Ajax amplifies brands by aligning employees' online messaging.