While stopping bad behavior in the workplace is vital, don’t apply Biden’s soundbite to your policy book.
President Joe Biden started strong when he addressed White House officials, telling them that he wanted to return to the core American values of “humility and trust.” Then he said this:
I am not joking when I say this … if you ever work with me and I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect … talk down to someone, I promise you I will fire you on the spot … on the spot. No ifs, ands, or buts.
When I first hear that, I thought, “Hallelujah! That is precisely what we need–someone to take a hardline on proper behavior.”
And then I put my HR hat on and said, “But that’s terrible policy.” Here’s why:
Investigate and then discipline
“On the spot” firings make for great television, but it’s a pretty bad policy at work. Except in the most egregious of circumstances, you want to conduct an investigation. (And even in egregious circumstances, it doesn’t hurt to suspend someone while you investigate.) There are always at least two sides to every story, and sometimes many, many more. You want a full picture.
Biden says that if “I hear you treat another colleague with disrespect,” he will fire you, “no ifs, ands, or buts.” There are two ways to take that. The first is that he directly observes you behaving badly. The second is if he hears that you did something bad because someone else tells him. That’s not a path anyone wants to go down.
Who serves “at the pleasure of the president”?
Biden spoke directly to White House officials who serve at his pleasure. He can terminate these people because they are political appointees.
You don’t have “special” employees in your business that you can terminate on a whim. While, technically, almost all employment in the United States is at-will, in practice, if you terminate someone, you better have a good reason that will stand up in court.
Outside of political appointees, federal government employees have rights that the general workforce does not. They are entitled to due process and have other rights that have to be respected. Biden couldn’t, technically, terminate these employees without going through the processes for all federal employee terminations. In fact, 10 years ago, a study found that federal employees were more likely to die than be fired.
Always follow your policies. Always think through terminations. While private-sector employees aren’t generally entitled to due process, the best practice is to take terminations seriously and have them well documented.
One rude comment isn’t generally termination worthy
Biden is speaking to leaders who should be held to a higher standard. But, as a general rule, terminating for one moment of rudeness is not a good idea. People are imperfect. Generally, coaching is a better response to a mistake. If coaching fails, then you can terminate.
While I doubt that Biden meant what he said literally, his statement has gotten enough press that I thought it was important to remind people that slow and steady is generally a better policy than on the spot terminations.
That said, I would love it if President Biden kept with his statement’s spirit and held people accountable for their behavior. Let’s return to humility and trust.