“Sir, why did you fire Charles?”
The question was flat, neither aggressive nor amiable. The only other expatriate in the team had left the room, leaving just the Nigerians, eight in total, all men between 25 and 50 years of age. They looked at me sat at the head of the table in expectation. Legally they had no right to ask the question, but under Nigerian social norms they felt obliged to. Moreover, I was obliged to answer. The room fell silent and they waited.
Charles was an engineer I’d inherited from my predecessor, and I quickly found he wasn’t up to the job. I’d begun spotting mistakes in his work, serious technical errors that should never have been made. I asked him to explain them, giving him an opportunity to tell me of any mitigating circumstances of which I might be unaware. You’d be surprised what external factors can impact an engineer’s work in a country like Nigeria; family obligations are deep and far-reaching, and more than capable of intruding into a workplace. But Charles provided none, and after several iterations it was clear he simply didn’t have the knowledge and skills to do the work to the required standard.
I sat for a few seconds, gathering my thoughts. I’d been ambushed by my own team at the end of a weekly meeting, and I wasn’t prepared. Although they didn’t enjoy the protections of Nigeria’s infamously powerful labour unions, I couldn’t simply brush off the question or make a glib response if I expected to manage them effectively in future. They’d obviously conferred, elected a spokesman – a large and confident man by the name of Deji – and intervened in the hope of protecting their erstwhile colleague’s job, or at least seeing justice done. I’d need to choose my words carefully.
“The truth is,” I began. “Charles couldn’t do the work. He was making mistakes, lots of them. For example, I sent him to do something offshore and he got the measurements all wrong. This is simple stuff.” Nobody’s expression changed, so I went on. “Look, all of you here are experienced professionals, and you can do the work because you put in the necessary years of training and practice. Charles, for whatever reason, hasn’t done that; he’s never spent the time and effort to learn the basics of his trade. You guys have, but he hasn’t.”
One or two heads nodded slightly, and bodies relaxed a touch. I continued. “What he needs to do is find a job where he can learn the basics, with all the necessary training and support. Unfortunately, this isn’t the place to do that: we need experienced engineers who can deliver immediately, and we hire on that basis. That’s why you guys are here, and not a bunch of students. Charles is in the wrong job.”
I fell silent, letting them process what I’d said. After a few seconds Deji spoke up. “Sir, we understand, but can’t you give him a second chance? He has a family.”
I adopted the most sympathetic tone I could, and replied: “I can’t, for two reasons. Firstly, as a manager I’m paid to look after the company’s interests. I draw a salary in return for making decisions which are often difficult and at odds with what I’d like to do personally. Yes, it would be nicer and easier to let Charles stay, but I’d be failing in my own job if that happened. There’s a human aspect here for sure, but the job of a manager is to weigh those against the interests of the company. You guys understand that, right?”
“Yes sir,” Deji said. “We understand.”
“Okay,” I said. “And the other reason is this. You know how coveted the jobs are in this company, how many thousands of people in this country would kill to have your jobs. Somewhere there’s a guy out there who has put in serious time and effort to acquire the skills necessary to get a job here, but never got the opportunity. He’s standing on the street, unemployed or in a rubbish job, praying he gets a chance to work here. But he can’t, because the position is taken up by someone who isn’t up to it. How is that fair? Yes, Charles has a family but so has this other guy. You guys all earned your positions here; how would you feel if you were shut out because your posts were filled with people who lacked the basic skills for the job?”
“You make a good point,” Deji said. Everyone nodded in agreement.
“Charles will be replaced by someone more suited to the job, and more deserving of it,” I said. “Is that fair?”
“Yes sir, it is. Thanks for your time, and explaining it to us.”
“Okay, good. But guys, I can’t be ambushed like this every time I make a decision. I don’t mind justifying my decisions to you some of the time, but I’m not obliged to, and I can’t do it all the time. If you have a problem with something tell me, but don’t put me on the spot like this.”
“Okay sir,” Deji said. “That’s noted. Thanks again for your time.”
There are times where one needs more than the blunt instrument of authority to manage a team effectively. See also here.