Good to Great in Business

February 1, 2006
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Sam Wyman

Most supervisors and employers have fired someone for improper acts like theft, repeated tardiness, or insubordination. While no dismissal is easy, the moral texture of this kind of termination is relatively smooth; there is a cause and effect. A sense of justice, or at least a clear sense of fairness, prevails. But what about employees who, despite their sincere best efforts, simply do not cut it?

Our firm recently embarked on a process inspired by the management bestseller Good to Great by Jim Collins. Based on a multiyear comparison of companies that surpassed or fell behind others in their sectors, Good to Great concludes that the right people in the right jobs is a consistent hallmark of a great company. Collins advocates an honest and rigorous evaluation of all staff along with a culture of decisive selectivity, e.g., “Hire slowly and fire quickly.”

The obvious bad apples were easy. But what about those good-hearted people who were with us forever but never really excelled? Collins suggests a simple exercise to determine if someone is right for an organization: “If that person were to announce tomorrow they are leaving for an exciting new opportunity, would you be disappointed or secretly relieved?” While that may be excellent business advice, what are the moral and ethical implications – the consciously Jewish concerns – of terminating a mediocre but good-hearted person when there is no “…exciting new opportunity” in his or her future? What if the individual has a family to support and would face a stretch of unemployment?

As Moshe Pava explained last month, “accountability is at the very heart of business and organizational ethics.” A supervisor or business owner must be accountable to the obligations of the organization, and, in the case of my firm, we owed an obligation to both our own families and the families of those who performed above and beyond our expectations every single year. If we were to honestly fulfill the obligation of accountibility, we needed to build the best organization we could. Those who were not able to make themselves essential to the organization could not stay.

We phased out these employees over a six-month period of time. Some, mercifully seeing the writing on the wall, resigned; others were asked to leave. These were all decent people and in some cases good friends. It was gut- wrenching at times and left me feeling very sad. We offered generous severances where we could, and in the case of one senior employee, allowed him to stay on for two months until he found a new home.

It has been about six months since our last “good to great” termination. We have had a terrific year. Those who were always great have gotten even better, and a few who were on the fence have really stepped up. While it is too soon to know if there will be more terminations, I feel we have crossed the road on our path to being a great firm.

Most everyone we let go has since found a job somewhere else; some even making more money than they did with us. I still lie awake at night wondering how my old friends are doing, but I try to comfort myself by knowing I had an obligation to do what I think was right. I really hope I did.

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Sam Wyman is a senior partner at Wolfe & Wyman LLP, a law firm with offices in California and Nevada. He serves on the board of directors of the Jewish Federation of Orange County as well as the Orange County Community Scholar Program.

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