Making the tough decision

I have seen people obsessed, enamored with making the tough decision and others too paralyzed to perform. We confer accolades on leaders who can make the tough call. Leadership is not for the faint of heart and at times decisions must be made that are unpopular and uncomfortable. There is something about tough personnel decisions which are different from most tough calls. When people are involved, concerns arise about relationships, families and emotions.  In personnel matters, you may have to cut your losses early, and carefully weigh your initial investment and the long-term implications of your actions. You do not want to walk away too early from a viable investment that needs a little more time to be productive.

What effect does tough personnel decisions have on the manager making the call? A manager may adopt one of three options.

  1. She objectively evaluates the person’s performance, character and job match and act with skill and dignity
  2. She changes her perception of the person, as if they are the enemy
  3. See changes her personality when interacting with the person, peers and superiors


We constantly face extremely competitive and challenging circumstances. Economic volatility and instability in many aspects of our lives threaten security. Companies are reducing payrolls and the adage of “lean and mean” is more like “anorexic with an attitude.” Everyone is being asked to do the work of multiple individuals with multiple priorities. Those who are not able to keep up are asked to leave the company voluntarily or involuntarily.

Character is very important, especially in light of corporate and political scandals and other high-profile breeches of ethics and morality. Integrity issues and violations of company policies will not be tolerated. Organizations realize their reputation has a numerical value attached to it. Anyone who poses a threat to the company’s image will be cleaved from the organization. This action requires courage and conviction.

People are misguided and opportunistic in their career selections. If they are in jobs that do not represent their passions, aspirations and interests, they will hold on to the wrong job rather than risk unemployment. Productivity and engagement levels will not reach the demands needed in today’s business climate. They may suffer and perform badly, but will not let go, even when the end is near.

Firing the poor job fit is an act of mercy, especially if you care about them. They may not view it as an act of goodwill or the actions of merciful management.  Years later they may describe it as the best thing that ever happened to them. I recall termination conferences where I was anxious and met a relaxed employee who knew they were in the wrong job. A few people thanked me for making the decision for them. Don’t let me delude you into thinking termination is always welcomed and appreciated, but when you have made the tough call and treated them with fairness, dignity, preserving their self-esteem, you have done your job appropriately.

Change perception of employee

The manager approaches the personnel issue as the body approaches food for digestion. He wants to convert the situation into something that is easy to manage. Some will turn against the employee and find a way to diminish, discredit or ridicule them in order to make the tough call. They play the blame game and make the person into the bad guy.

The employee becomes the enemy and the manager is committed to sabotage over saving them. The employee’s actions are seen through a lens of suspicion. They are no longer given the benefit of the doubt. The manager may also spread damaging words among leadership circles about the person’s alleged ineptitude.

Because this person is no longer in favor, the manager feels justified in their actions to remove them. “They should have never been hired in the first place” is a common phrase uttered about a person on the ropes. Their pleas for assistance in doing a better job are not taken seriously.

Many lawsuits are filed because a person felt depreciated and disrespected. They may feel their reputation has been destroyed. They feel as if the organization has turned against them. They don’t like the way they are treated. The employee lashes out against the company in the only way they know how to hurt them. They tie up legal resources through a lawsuit. Sometimes the focus isn’t on winning the suit as to venting their frustration. They feel hurt and humiliated.

Companies that are more equitable in the treatment of employees generally have a lower rate of lawsuits. If employees who are terminated or leave the company feel you had their best interests at heart, they are less prone to sue you. They have been known to recommend their former company. They may say things such as, “It is a good company, but things did not work out for me.”

Personal transformation

The manager may change personally. They become more reserved, aloof, distant and insensitive. Managers have been known to get angry in order to carry out a disciplinary action. They become selectively ruthless in order to gather up the courage to make the tough call. The person has become the enemy in their mind. This can potentially cloud their judgment and objectivity. The employee is confused because the manager sent mixed messages with this personality shift. The employee understands they may not be performing well, but does not understand why they are personally under attack.

Some managers realize their employee is not viewed favorably by their superiors. Rather than defend their person and work to improve their skills, they abandon them and begin the process of termination, career assassination and dissociation through managerial neglect. They don’t want their leadership skills questioned by defending a worker no one wants.

Some managers resort to anger to give them courage. We learned this as children. I remember fighting when I was younger.  I was losing badly. Suddenly, I let out a scream and charged my opponent. This scream summoned all the courage and strength I had in me. Managers have been known to perform a variation on this anger method to help them cope with making a tough call.

Making the tough call in personnel matters is hard to do, especially if the person is nice. But we must stay focused on our role and responsibilities as leaders. We must staff the organization with people who will rally around our vision of the future. By thoroughly reviewing all options after gathering the data and acting humanely, we set a powerful example for our people. You cannot postpone the decision forever. Mark, a veteran District Sales Manager one day commented on a person who was perennially a poor performer; “I should have fired that him 15 years ago when my manager asked me to, but he was a man with a nice family and now, I regret it.” A new manager tried to right the situation and placed pressure on him to move or improve. The representative’s wife called the office in anger. He was admitted into the Emergency room with what they thought was a heart attack. He was off-limits until he retired, which took several years. The District Manager’s reluctance to fire the manager cost the company, the customers and the representative the opportunity to find his right job fit.

Making the tough decision is a necessary part of the DNA of an effective leader. Personnel matters have their unique challenges. A leader must be fair, courageous, objective and emotionally balanced in disseminating discipline. The employee must be treated with dignity and self-respect, even though they may ultimately be separated from the company.  

Copyright © 2010 Orlando Ceaser

3 thoughts on “Making the tough decision

  1. Amazing blog! Do you have any suggestions for aspiring writers?

    I’m planning to start my own blog soon but I’m a lijttle los on everything.
    Would you propose starting with a free platform like WordPress or go for a paid option? There
    are so many options out there that I’m completely confusedd ..
    Any suggestions? Thanks!


  2. There are a lot of factors that impact how we manage personnel issues, including the personal history that we have with an individual. In my experience, when you have made a personal investment in someone else’s success, the more difficult it is to make the tough call. However, as you state, it can be done, and done properly.

    This article has caused me to assess my own practices, as I work to become more effective in managing my team, and addressing issues. Thanks for another timely and applicable lesson.


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