The Terminator

Even for those governments that have mechanisms to hasten the firing process, it can still be laborious to get rid of deadwood.
 

No concept for better management is so self-evident that it doesn't have at least one potentially negative side effect. Based on personal experiences with physical fitness programs, we call this the sprained- ankle syndrome. Such side effects are rampant in personnel management.

There's little question, for instance, that it is a good thing for human resources managers to have a great deal of control and flexibility over whom they hire and fire. Speed in both processes can only benefit the efficiency of a city, state or county. But if it becomes too easy to hire and fire with little oversight, there's a huge opportunity for a whole pantheon of bad things to happen: patronage is one, discrimination is another and unfair dismissals (of the "I just didn't like his face" variety) are increasingly likely.

Most counties, cities and states are acutely aware of these particular landmines and have instituted a wide range of rules and regulations to protect their employees' rights, particularly when it comes to termination. This is true in both unionized and non-unionized entities. In most cases, without a reasonably lengthy, well-documented dossier proving that an individual should be canned, a series of appeals will follow that can last for months or even years. And even in those governments that have put in mechanisms to hasten the process, it can still be a laborious effort to get rid of deadwood. As a result, employees who are simply lazy, difficult or intermittently obnoxious--as opposed to outright incompetent or homicidal--tend to hang on to their jobs indefinitely.

That's not good. But the solution is pretty straightforward: Keep employees on probationary periods for their first six, nine or 12 months of employment. During this period of time, they have to prove themselves worthwhile. If they don't, they can be let go with little muss or fuss.

Consider Milwaukee County, where the probation period varies, but generally lasts 180 days. "After probation, the discharge process is very time-consuming," says Gary Dobbert, director of human resources. "If you've got someone who looks like an iffy employee, you want to cut the cord pretty fast." In the year 2000, about 1.3 percent of the county's employee base was terminated. But closer to 12 percent of men and women who were on probation were fired.

The state of Wisconsin also uses probation periods strategically. Agencies can request that, in certain occupations, the probationary period be extended--for as long as two years. HR officials there believe that this gives them the best chance of making sure that employees who are awarded job security deserve it.

The employment of this reasonably simple process varies widely. In many states, a six- to 12-month probationary period is used aggressively to determine which employees aren't working well. These states tend to terminate 5 to 10 percent or so of new employees during that period. Kansas, for example, fires about 10 percent of its probationary employees. After that time, the state only lets go about 1.1 percent of its work force. "We think of the probationary period as part of the selection process for new hires," says Bobbi Mariani, director of the division of personnel services, "If you can tell you've hired someone who doesn't fit, we encourage managers to use the probationary period to fix the problem."

Some governments, however, don't take advantage of the opportunities offered through appropriate use of probation and fire almost no one-- even though it's only common sense to assume that nobody is 100 percent astute in their hiring decisions. In both New Jersey and California, for example, less than 1 percent of new employees were terminated during probation last year. The curious thing about both these states is that probationary employees have appeal rights, which is something like creating a law that fines people who go over the speed limit in all instances except when they're driving a car.

Cuyahoga County, Ohio, has a similarly dysfunctional probationary period but for an entirely different reason. There, about 0.5 percent of employees are fired during the 120- to 180-day probationary time span. The problem is that managers in Cuyahoga, which encompasses the Cleveland area, seem to thrive on eternal hope. They simply allow employees to muck their way through the probationary period, despite clear signs that there are problems that merit action. The employees then become far more difficult to dislodge.

"We get departments coming to us and saying they thought a particular employee would turn around, and he didn't," says Dennis Madden, director of human resources there. "Then, they want to fire them for the same thing that was bothering them a year and a half before." Madden says that he regrets the missed chance to raise the quality of the work force generally. "Departments need to be more diligent in assessing the skills and aptitudes of their new employees. You've got to take advantage of the window of opportunity here."

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