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The Campsite Theory of Firing

Camping

The campsite theory of firing asks leaders to leave dismissed employees better than you found them.

When my children were young, family vacations were often spent at campgrounds within national parks, where one rule prevailed: leave the campsite better than you found it. The idea, of course, is to respect the natural environment by not just picking up your own trash, but by picking up rubbish others have left behind as well.

Not long ago, while conducting interviews as part of the Return on Values research project, my colleagues and I heard how one company compassionately coaches struggling employees, and, when necessary, lets them go in a way that allows the terminated employee to keep her dignity and respect. One of our staff members commented, “It’s almost like the campsite approach to firing someone: you’re trying to help them be a better employee, even as they need to leave the company.”

Those of us in the room nodded our heads: that was exactly right. It’s not just for the benefit of the departing employee, either: when done well, and with respect, dismissing an underperforming or poor culture-fit employee can improve your workplace environment and the team’s overall performance. Let me share a story that illustrates this.

BerylHealth is a Dallas-area health care customer service firm. Andrew Pryor, Beryl’s vice president for human resources, introduced our research team to Beryl’s Decision Day process.

When an employee is struggling, either because of a poor culture-fit or poor performance, Beryl’s leaders work to coach the employee toward better outcomes. But when that’s not possible, Pryor brings the employee into his office for Decision Day. He told us:

“The conversation always goes something like this. We want you to be a part of our team.  We think we made a correct hiring decision. You absolutely 100 percent have a job to come to tomorrow. But for today, we want you to go home. We’re going to pay you for today and we want you to make a decision. Is Beryl Health the company for you?  Do you think you can meet our performance standards? Do you think you’d be happy continuing to work in our culture?  And if not, come back tomorrow and resign and we part as friends. But if you want to come back tomorrow; if you want to be a part of this great organization we ask that you write a letter of commitment to us.”

In one case, an employee who repeatedly struggled to get to work on time returned from Decision Day with the title for a new, reliable car. Another employee whose argumentative attitude was hurtful to colleagues, returned with a letter of commitment vowing to stop listening to political talk radio on his drive to work so he could start his day with a better attitude. About 30 percent of employees choose not to return, but they do so with the knowledge that they were given the choice to make changes.

This may be the most compassionate approach to dealing with a difficult employees I’ve ever encountered. In the academic literature, compassion in the workplaces is strongly associated with positive attitudes, feelings and behaviors that have a direct influence on factors such as employee retention and satisfaction. One team of researchers, led by the University of Michigan’s Jason Kanov, identified three subcomponents of compassion: noticing, feeling, and responding. In the Beryl example:

  • Leaders notice an employee’s struggle to meet expectations (in terms of job requirements or organizational culture);
  • Leaders have empathic concern for the employee, feeling the importance of this employee to the greater team, and also feeling the employee has the capacity to change behaviors, allowing him to stay with the organization;
  • Leaders respond by discreetly offering the employee a day to decide how he will respond.

It’s tempting, when you’re taking down your tent and packing up the minivan, to leave the pop cans and chocolate wrappers behind. Likewise, it’s easy as a leader, to focus so firmly on getting a challenging employee out of your organization that you lose sight of caring for that employee as an individual. Beryl is an exceptional example of a company that does not forget a leader’s first job is to compassionately care for his or her people, even the ones that are on their way out.

Jim Ludema
Principal Investigator | Return on Values
Director | Center for Values-Driven Leadership | Benedictine University

 

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