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Why You Should Fire Nasty People

2011 February 6
by Greg Satell

What do you do with top performers who are nasty?  Fire them, of course.

This was a conclusion I arrived at  years ago and, after having put it into practice, I can attest that it works.  It not only creates a better workplace, but it improves performance.

When I mentioned this principle in a previous post about the importance of employee development, I got a lot of feedback.  Much was positive, but some was skeptical.  So, I’m laying out my reasoning here for my “fire nasty people rule.”  You can judge for yourself.

An Idea Takes Seed

Nearly a decade ago I was on a plane from Warsaw to Kiev.  I had been hired by a Swiss publisher to turn around their Ukrainian operations which were in very bad shape.  My travel companion, a Polish executive who was responsible for overseeing the Ukrainian unit, started filling me in on the details.

I could spot one source of trouble when she told me, “We have a great Sales Director,” she said, “who makes up 90% of revenue herself.”  From experience I knew that, rather than due to impressive sales skills, this “performance” was most likely due to the Sales Director hogging all the clients (and commissions).

In the weeks that followed, my suspicions were confirmed.  The Sales Director was indeed a nasty piece of work who, rather than improving the performance of her department, spent most of her energy getting more sales attributed to her.  It took some time to overcome the fear of losing a “top performer,” but eventually she was fired and sales went up significantly.

The “No Asshole Rule”

In the years that followed, I put my “fire nasty people rule” into practice and was very happy with the results.  I found that I spent much less time refereeing petty disputes, staff were more focused on their jobs and employee retention improved drastically.  I was amazed at how much damage nasty people had been doing.

In 2007, Robert Sutton of Stanford, a management thinker that I had come to admire, published The No Asshole Rule, which chronicled results similar to mine.  He has since followed up with a sequel, Good Boss, Bad Boss.  I recommend both.

He found that troublesome people actually cost much more than they were worth and were a drag on profits.   Whatever their objective “performance” they did so much that brought down the people around them that the overall effect was negative.

Moreover, in many, if not most cases, these people were much better at taking credit than they were at actually getting things done.  He detailed one case that was almost identical to the one with my Sales Director.  A seemingly “top performer” at the retailer Men’s Wearhouse was fired and sales almost immediately went up 30%.

The Fallacy of New Ideas and Star Performers

We tend to glorify individual results.  We revere sports stars, top CEO’s and Nobel prizewinners.  However, the reality is much more complex.  Purely individual achievement is surprisingly rare.  While some people get a lot of credit, success is usually a team effort.

As I wrote in an earlier post about synthesizing ideas, even great discoveries aren’t as simple as a lone genius and a flash of inspiration.  From evolution to DNA to relativity, when you look a little bit deeper, you find that what on the surface seems like individual achievement is usually a product of collaboration.  Thomas Kuhn even remarked that there is often so much overlap, it is difficult to tell who really discovered what.

I’ve found the same to be true in business.  Salespeople depend on the brand that they are selling.  Web developers borrow code from each other.  A marketing campaign of any significant size often involves dozens of people, all of whom must work together.  In my experience, there is no problem of any serious consequence which can be solved by one person alone.

Nastiness is not a sign of intelligence or superior ability.  It’s just selfishness, bad manners and a general waste of time and energy.

Putting it Into Practice

Rooting out nastiness is easier said than done.  You can’t go around firing people for every cross word nor can you expect every day at work to be a love fest.  What you can do, however, is make clear that a continual pattern of nasty behavior won’t get you ahead, it will get you fired.

Here are some areas to focus on:

Pay: The best place to start is compensation.  Performance bonuses, whenever possible, should be heavily weighted, if not entirely based on, group performance.  I have run literally dozens of sales teams over the years and have found that, even among the most competitive salespeople, group compensation schemes are not only viable, they produce better results.

Problems: As I wrote in a previous post, professionals seek to solve problems, not create them.  When you have an employee that seems to take more pride in causing problems than solving them, you need to have a serious talk.  If the situation doesn’t improve, don’t hesitate.  Fire away!

Promotion: Another important component is advancement.  Putting ego-driven jackasses in charge of other people will only spawn more ego-driven jackasses.  Managers should be nurturers, not prima donnas who specialize in self-aggrandizement.

Office Courtesy: One great litmus test is to look for people who promote the work of colleagues and subordinates versus those who say “look what I did.”  Another one is to watch closely how people treat junior staff, especially receptionists and assistants.  Those who seem overbearing in public are probably much worse in private.

It takes time, but there is no reason why you can’t root out nastiness.  In fact, once people realize that stepping on others is not the way to get ahead, the process becomes self perpetuating.

Life Without Nastiness

I admit, it all does seem somewhat idealistic and impractical.  Nobody can be nice all of the time and simply being nice is not really a qualification for anything.  I myself have, in some quarters, a very well deserved reputation for nastiness.  However, striving for a better, more productive environment doesn’t mean unilateral disarmament.

Sometimes, you need to defend your interests and nastiness can’t be avoided.  In those instances, there’s no sense in being just a little bit nasty, you might as well be a real bastard (and I can be, it’s not hard).

Still, in the vast majority of cases, it pays to seek out mutually beneficial arrangements, look to give before you take and try to be as nice as you can.  This, of course, means that you’ll get burned sometimes, but it’s always better to find out who your dealing with sooner rather than later.

So go ahead.  Be nice and strive to work with nice people.  You won’t be sorry.

– Greg

Update: Somebody on pointed me towards this great article by Bob Sutton in McKinsey Quarterly which incorporates the “Total Cost of Jerks.”   I highly recommend it.

15 Responses leave one →
  1. February 7, 2011

    Great post Greg, I had to learn that one the hard way ….. when I think back now on the amount of time and energy I invested in working and tolerating people who I knew almost right away were never going to rise to the optimum level required to consistently deliver results, it would have been much simpler to let them go ……. The whole process made me so much wiser which is always a wonderful gift to have ……

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    I agree Imelda. There’s no sense wasting time. Once you get rid of troublemakers, it frees up a lot of time to focus on those who matter.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  2. February 7, 2011

    Hi Greg,

    Nice piece as usual.

    Have you read last week’s Corner Office column in the Sunday New York Times? Michael Lebowitz CEO of the digital marketing agency Big Spaceship talks about his “Don’t hire jerks, no matter how talented” rule. (Here’s the link if you haven’t seen it: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/01/30/business/30corner.html )

    Seems like an idea very much in line with the collaborative mindframe the web is bringing to work ethic. Hope it sticks.

    Danielle

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Danielle,

    No, I hadn’t seen it, but great article! Thanks.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  3. February 7, 2011

    Hi Greg,

    Having worked in both extremes of the teamwork approach -or not – it is obvious (and also common sense) that working as a team is a win-win. Both the goals of the company and the individuals are met and all come out ahead when working together to achieve a common goal. Of course, if the “non-players” are your superiors in an organization, there is not a blessed thing you can do except look for another job!

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, Julie. I couldn’t agree more!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  4. February 8, 2011

    Great piece of article.Nasty executives have ruined some companies with bad mouthing
    about the owners and blowing their own trumpets on sales achievements.It creates
    so much demoralization,that one has to brood over the very existence of the company.
    One need to be practical and can I say courageous to weed out the nasty.

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks, Jalal.

    [Reply]

  5. February 8, 2011

    I like the post and the Idea behind. Learned a lesson & thanks Greg for the good post.

    Pls keep posting.

    -Barada

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Thanks Barada.

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  6. February 12, 2011

    Nice blogpost. Thanks, Greg. Keep posting! (I also met some nasty people at work. Unfortunately, it’s common situation in the Ukrainian companies.)

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Yes, it is:-)

    – Greg

    [Reply]

  7. Mark Waltrip permalink
    February 19, 2011

    Well said. I will make all of my executives read this. Thank you,

    Mark

    [Reply]

    Greg Reply:

    Mark,

    Glad to hear it:-) Have a great weekend!

    – Greg

    [Reply]

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