I Can’t Fire Him

The new guy sits across from me. Today’s his first day, but I can see the future:
– He’ll be late, probably tomorrow.
– He won’t listen.
– He’s going to embarrass his manager and create strain on his department.
– His personality isn’t going to mesh well with the rest of the team.
– He’ll learn slowly, if at all, and making him actually do his job will be a constant struggle.
– He’s arrogant and cares more about himself than the job I need him to do.
– He’ll probably get demoted before he gets promoted.

What would you do? Would you shuffle him on to someone else who doesn’t see him coming? How about plan to get rid of him as soon as his probationary period ends? Have you just earmarked him to be the first to go at the next round of personnel cuts? You know what I do? I shake his hand and say, “welcome aboard.”

As much as I’d like to take an easy way out, I can’t. We don’t have a probationary period, and there are no personnel cuts at my level that allow me to conveniently pick who goes. I can’t shuffle the inconvenient people off because, in most cases, they are here with their position and profession already decided. They arrive, and that’s that. You can’t choose family, and I can’t choose who gets sent my way, so we’d all better make the best of it., and that starts with the minute they arrive, whether I see good or bad in their future.

I can’t fire him, and that’s a good thing.

What I can do, though, is commit to making this new thing work as well as possible. And yes, that means a bunch of people need to invest time into our newest member to educate, mentor, direct, and perhaps discipline. Yes, it’s work, and then it’s more work. It’s emotional energy that we might feel is being wasted, but it’s our job.

And then, just like I expected, he does something wrong. Finally, my chance to hammer him into the ground, to yell and scream and punish him for all he’s done and everything I know he’ll do! Yes!


He gets the same treatment as anyone else on the first strike. The process doesn’t change, and he’s no different than our best guy with a first mistake. I know how tempting it is to just punish our problems away, but it doesn’t work. Worse, it often creates the self-fulfilling prophecy we all hear about. If you want this new guy to be successful, then you have to make him successful, no matter how much he seems naturally inclined to ensure his own failure.

I remember this situation well, when a young man with lots of potential refused to perform. He complained constantly about some injustice, and always had some sort of drama attached to his name. I could say more about this guy, but it would be embarrassing: It was me.

Luckily for younger me when I didn’t see the big picture, I had leaders who did. They treated me based on my performance and gave me every opportunity to make better decisions. They invested emotional and physical energy into my training, and they did everything they could to make things work when they could have just hammered me, demoted me, and sent me on my way.

– When I tried to get out of the military with no real plan, they did all they could to talk me out of it.

– When I made poor personal decisions, they gave advice they knew I wouldn’t take, but they did it anyway because it was the right thing to do.

– When I didn’t listen and made mistakes, they helped me bounce back when the time was right.

– When I brought my terrible attitude to their offices, they stayed positive.

Only now do I see how hard that can be. I have more than enough stories of how good leaders gave of themselves freely for a young man who might not have completely deserved it at the time. They understood then what I do now, that each person has potential to get it right and is worth the sweat and frustration. They couldn’t help that I arrived, so they committed to make it work even when I didn’t. Now, a decade or two later, I’d say it worked out pretty darn well.

I’ll never see most of those leaders again to thank properly, but every now and then, I see myself in some young Sailor. I’m sure if I had a mirror nearby, I’d see those leaders in me. I just hope I can handle things half as well as they did.

Sooner or later, I think we all have a chance to find ourselves on both sides of the desk, and only then do we realize how lucky we are that we can’t fire people so easily.

– Have you had that one person you knew was going to be trouble the minute you met him or her?

– What was the first sign that it was going to go poorly?

– How did you make it work?

Have a great weekend out there.



James Tinker

About James Tinker

James was born and raised in Bangor, and left home at 18 for the Navy. Twenty-five years later, he retired as a Command Master Chief, the highest enlisted rank on a warship in San Diego. His popular blog series, The Day Job, shares personal and professional lessons learned through his career.