As time goes by – August 1983

Things being what they are, holidays and stuff, I'm a bit pressed for time this month and so I've roped in a couple of guest stars to help out with the column. Like you to meet two of the finest people it's been my pleasure to know - Ira Ellenthal and Lou Porterfield. Big hand for Ira and Lou - thank you.

Ira and Lou are publishing executives in the States and last month they did a double-act in Folio, a trade magazine, in which they discussed one of the bigger problems of being a boss - firing people.


To be straight with you, it never occurred to me that this might be a problem for our bosses. Any of them that I've known have from time to time taken a positive joy in the act. So much so that a few years back the government was forced to bring in legislation, the Unfair Dismissals Act, to cut down on the firing rate.


But, apparently, no, I got it wrong. So unpleasant is it that, "I can't sleep the night before", says Lou, "or, for that matter, the night after." So painful is the act of firing someone that Ira and Lou have sought to avoid the very word. They prefer the term, "separation interview". Together they set out to "examine the methodology of the separation interview."


Ira says that a loose approach to the separation interview can really screw things up. He instances a recent occasion on which he used a careless phrase while separating someone:


"Getting right to the point I told the individual who I was dismissing, 'Fred, I've decided to let you go'. Baffled, he looked at me and asked, 'Where'."


You can see how this could lead to problems, right?


Nevertheless, Ira makes it clear that however difficult it is to deprive someone of a living a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do. Letting yourself be talked out of the unpleasant duty demonstrates a lack of resolve and can result in "weakening our posture within our department of organisation".


And you don't need Ira, Lou or me to tell you that nothing gets you separated quicker than a weak posture.


After throwing the problem on the floor and kicking it around a while, Ira and Lou came up with some rules of thumb. For instance, Ira quotes a friend of his, a management consultant, who says it's ill-advised to allow the victim "to stick around after the separation interview ... his presence will depress other staff members." Makes sense to me. Nothing more depressing than a guy shuffling around the office asking directions to the nearest dole.


Ira therefore stresses the necessity of "doing the deed as quickly and painlessly as possible. The best management minds also call for speedy removal of the body." Once the poor slob has been separated "we should encourage him to vacate the premises as soon as he has cleaned out his desk." Good thinking.


For this reason Ira recommends that "separation interviews should be conducted late in the business day, not early in the morning". There are, however, two ways of looking at this. Lou Porterfield sees a flaw: "As much as I recognise the management merits of doing it at the end of the day, I also recognise that waiting it out virtually spoils the whole day for me." Shucks. One damn thing after another.


If Lou is a bit squeamish about actually slipping the knife between the ribs he's a real whizz at sharpening the blade. He rakes his underlings with an experienced eye, seizing on symptoms which indicate that a separation is in order. "Remember", he says, "to get where I am, I've been where they are." You can't fool Lou.


So it's no good trying to make points by turning in for work at 7.30 in the morning. Lou is on to that old dodge: "The only thing an early arrival proves is that the person doesn't sleep late." I tell you, baby, this guy is shaa-harp, right?


Another thing. Lou figures that a sure sign that you're working hard is that your secretary is very busy. "An idle secretary says a whole lot to me about what's not happening", says Lou. Me, I don't have a secretary, but I'm sure as hell putting in for one, pronto. Take it from Lou - the best way to protect your flank is to get a busy secretary. That way, as long as you're running her ragged you can spend all day propping up the bar in O'Donoghue's and discussing foreign borrowing with the bores from the Sunday Tribune.


So, you see, it's not all peaches and cream at the top, it's not all yonks and giggles. Shattering people's lives sure takes it out of you. As Lou says, "I felt just as bad about the last person I fired as the first one."


So, here's the scam: you're working away - or, at least, your secretary is and you see the boss come in looking haggard, like he hasn't had a wink of sleep. And he seems preoccupied, glancing at the clock, wishing the day away. And it gets near clocking out time and he asks you to step into his office, and he's pacing nervously and he begins saying something about this hurts him more than it hurts you. That's when you kill him. You grab his Junior Chamber Decisive Achievement Award from his desk and hit him with it. An upward blow, hitting the face at an angle of thirty degrees. Smashes the nose, drives the bone up into the brain. Instant adios.


Now, this is not the time for selfindulgent whinging and remorse. Snap out of it. Window open, let him go, head first. Plop. Coroner won't notice a thing. ("Business worries, interest rates, cash flow, budget deficit. Balance of mind obviously disturbed. Great loss. Leaves gap.") This could even provide you with an opportunity for promotion.


Don't give me that ethics crap.


Ethics, schmethics. Ethics weaken your posture. Which is precisely what your boss would say, if he wasn't busy being scraped off the car park. In fact no one would understand, appreciate or even applaud your action more than himself. He'd have recognised the kind of creative, gutsy decisiveness that keeps the wheels of commerce and industry turning smoothly. It would have radically changed his estimation of you. As Lou puts it: "We're too proud of what we've got going to let anyone stand in our way." It sounds cold and harsh, admits Ira, and he quotes a business friend: "I feel like I'm murdering someone." But that's the way it is - sometimes the individual has to be sacrificed to the greater good. And you have every bit as much right to define the greater good as anyone else. One man's separation interview is another man's nose job with extreme prejudice.


Mind you, it might cost you a few sleepless nights. But no one said life was easy.


Okay folks, Ira and Lou, all together now, big finish - 'an' Ah says to mahself, wadda wunnerful wuh-hurld. Ooooohh yeeaaaah.'