This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Thursday, February 22, 2007

February 22, 2007 - You're Fired!

Recently, I did a workshop with a friend of mine. The topic, according to my friend, may address one of the key issues around the nation.

How do you fire somebody?

Obviously, firing should be the last step in an unproductive relationship. But every single one of us can think of people who accept a paycheck, then seem to feel no compunction of any kind to work on behalf of the organization that pays them.

And often, it's worse than that: they actively work AGAINST the goals of the organization.

Sometimes it's overt -- and astonishingly, even then, people get away with it.

More often, it's covert. They sit and nod in meetings, and the instant they leave, they begin to undermine whatever decision was made.

There's a deep organizational trap here. For unproductive employees, the trap is powerlessness and bitterness. They feel that they have no say over the organizational direction. They feel they are somehow entitled to pay, but owe nothing more than time. They become toxic.

There's a trap for managers, too. They find that the atmosphere of the workplace is mired in negativity. They can see it: no one ever smiles anymore. No one is even polite. Whatever measure of success matters in that business is simply unattainable.

Instead of a contract for productivity, the relationship between manager and employee becomes a contract for mutual victimhood.


I understand how people get there, and often it's through the best of intentions.

We try to be compassionate. We think that a warm and understanding chat with someone going through a rough time is sufficient to set things right.

Instead, it grants permission to introduce non-work place factors as a kind of trump card.

Years ago, when I was just getting into the field, I was lucky enough to land a graduate assistantship. At first, I did a great job. I have always loved library work.

Then, a romantic relationship I was in failed, pretty miserably. I deeply resented winding up in what seemed to me a particularly sordid country western lyric. Over the next few weeks I was, frankly, worthless at work.

Until my supervisor, a very kind and competent lady, came around the corner and caught me in the perfect snapshot of indolence: feet up on desk, doing nothing but feeling sorry for myself.

She asked me to accompany her to her office. She told me that she had to make some decisions about the next year's graduate assistantships. She had plenty of applicants, she said. She believed that those assistantships should go to the people who had enthusiasm for the job, who would give it their best, who would demonstrate by their actions and behavior that they had high standards of performance.

She wanted to know whether I was interested in such an assistantship. Right then, she said, it didn't seem to her that I was.

Then, she said briskly, she wanted me to think about it and let her know. End of meeting. Total elapsed time, maybe 30 seconds. Half a minute.

I was completely and utterly devastated. Shamed.

But that did it. l came back the next day and apologized for my behavior, and said I offered no excuses. But I would show her that I deserved that assistantship. And I worked my heart out to prove it to her.

She gave it to me, along with a glowing recommendation.

I ran across this supervisor some 5 years later, just before accepting my first directorship. I thanked her for saving my whole professional career.

What had she done? She refused to accept victimhood for either one of us. She told me in no uncertain terms what she expected of me. She had a decision to make, and told me what would go into it.

And I had a decision to make. There was the offer: work for pay. My choice.

She didn't have to fire me, because she did something that few in the work place have the courage and simple decency to do. She set aside 30 seconds of her day to have a direct conversation with me. She wasn't demeaning or cruel. Just direct.

Maybe you don't have anybody in your organization who needs that talk. Maybe you do. Can you afford half a minute?

Can you afford the alternative?

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