Opinion: Why One Sacking is Worth 1,000 Memos

Written by Ian Muir Monday 29 April 2019
Why leaders should send clear signals with action
People talking

Leaders send signals through their actions, decisions, language and behaviour. They know that the shadow they cast has an impact on others, and that, handled well, it multiplies productivity. They appreciate that they are never off-duty and that nothing is ever off the record. This is an important aspect of the ‘tone from the top’.

Why Leaders Should Sack Employees for Misdemeanors

One chief executive I worked with was acutely aware of these signals. In one of his group companies, a large call centre was staffed by young adults – average age early 20s. As you can imagine, despite clear policies, more than a few logged on to unsavoury material on the public internet. Rather than quietly disciplining people and managing them out, the company fired them. As the chief executive put it: “For the right reasons, one sacking is worth 1,000 memos.” Quarterly communications explained the policy, described the misdemeanours and said how many people had been removed from the business. This was uncompromising, effective leadership.

Leaders Should Call Out Gender Bias

I saw similarly effective signalling in another company. There, line managers tried to deflect gender imbalance by insisting women applicants simply weren’t there. So the board agreed a new hiring process: all management positions had to have a shortlist of three and, before any offer could be made, the hiring manager had to phone a named main board director – not the HR director – and answer the question: “Did you have a woman on your shortlist?” There was no quota, compulsion or sanction. But, if it happened again, the director would politely say: “Fine, but you are going to try harder next time, aren’t you? Otherwise you aren’t the successful executive I thought you were.” Over a three-year period, the ratio of women managers tripled.

More information on calling out gender bias

A Code of Conduct

Here’s another example. An all-male operating board gradually started using inappropriate language, which spread. It was hardly surprising – people tend to copy their leaders’ behaviour. A board-level training session was organised, and all kinds of unprintable terms were arranged on a flip chart, with board members choosing where to write each word. The ‘just about acceptable’ were at the bottom and ‘totally unacceptable’ at the top. When the sheet was full, the trainer said: “Now you draw the line.” And the dividing line was drawn – physically, metaphorically, ethically and culturally. It set the tone and the board members’ agreement cured the problem, not least because the trainer revealed his identity – a senior lawyer from one of the City’s leading litigation houses. He explained in arresting detail the multi-million-pound cases his firm had won at the High Court.

Transparency helps set a tone of openness. A company I know has, for more than 20 years, added a leaflet to every pay review letter. It states clearly that rewards are individual but market-based and performance-driven, while recognising the company’s ability to pay. It gives aggregated data on the overall increase for men, women, management, non-management, length of service, whether disabled, and so on. It doesn’t claim to be perfect, but it shows that ratios and comparisons are being measured, and that managers are being held to account for their pay decisions.

Read more: could you handle radical candour?

Leaders Are Role Models

The tone from the top sets the climate, the rules of behaviour – ‘how we do things round here’. But the real opportunity is much higher levels of trust: trust that leadership are acting in the best interests of the people they lead. That is what enables leaders to take people to places they didn’t envisage reaching – to achieve things they never thought they could. Imagine your company’s performance with a workforce like that.

Image: Shutterstock


Ian Muir

Ian Muir

Ian Muir CCMI advises organisations on executive assessment, board evaluation and top team facilitation. He is the director of board advisory firm Keeldeep Associates