Not A Family

There’s a mini-crisis going on right now in the tech sector. And the most important thing about these is, of course, to never waste a good crisis. One thing that is becoming clear again is that companies are definitely not families. That’s a good thing for everyone involved. Let’s discuss conscious culture-forming around this concept and how you can leverage this crisis to help your team improve—and you don’t have to let anyone go.

The Family Fallacy

In my work, I’ve seen countless organizations harp on their “family” values. I know this comes off as unfavorable, but I don’t believe anyone is doing this cynically. The problem is that it just doesn’t make sense, and this dissonance then affects many aspects of your team in a way that’s often spotted too late—once fixing the damage is considerably more challenging.

The “family thinking” often manifests in HR departments and leaders who object to any concept of letting people go or admitting that someone is not a fit. You’ve undoubtedly heard people proudly exclaim that no one ever quit or was fired in their company. I know VPs that claimed that if they gave up on any employee, it would mean a personal failure on their part, and they wouldn’t have it. This is people-pleasing taken to an extreme that isn’t sustainable.

What does it mean that you never realize someone is not a good fit (or was and no longer is)? One option is that you’re spending way too much effort in your hiring pipeline and thus lose out on many good candidates. The other option is spending countless efforts and resources to help your poorly-fitting employees fit, or at least hang on, in a way that’s weighing down your entire organization. The right path forward is to accept that you’re not a family, and that’s okay.

Treating Employees As Adults

The only sensible option is to realize that no one is in your company forever (I’ll tell you a secret: not even you!). If someone isn’t a good fit—that’s not a personal failure on your part (unless it’s becoming a clear pattern where you realize most of your hires are bad). What should you do, then?

First, I’m not suggesting you sack people willy-nilly. Everyone deserves honest and sincere feedback that helps them grow and addresses their weak areas. This is precisely the type of feedback that leaders often refrain from sharing when they never consider the option of a poor fit. It’s just too scary to think about, so they try to “tolerate” and “work around” their own team members! It’s kind of like that uncle that always bores everyone but no one says anything.

After you’ve provided feedback, mentoring, and coaching for a while, there is nothing terrible with considering whether the employee is—as a whole—a positive enough force within the company. By that, I mean that it is not enough for an employee to not weigh down on others within the company, but that it is perfectly reasonable to expect a certain threshold of seniority and enforce it. If someone cannot provide the impact that a position warrants, they are a poor fit and are likely to feel better themselves in a different role.

Sometimes, you need to readjust expectations. For example, accept that a particular hire wasn’t really a senior engineer and move them to a more appropriate position. Or that a specific Engineering Manager is not growing as fast as their team and cannot continue leading a team that big or complex (or should consider going back to the IC track ultimately). Treating these scenarios internally means that you can avoid letting go of good people who already know your organization and can contribute differently.

However, when the employee is just not a good fit, and you and your managers have given the issue an honest effort, it is often better to admit it and allow everyone to move than to allow such a situation to drag on for months. You shouldn’t wait for a compulsory layoff to handle these cases. You’re not a family, and that’s alright. Go your separate ways and make room for new people.