Friday, September 24, 2010

Forget teachers, what does it take to fire an incompetent corporate employee?

We have often heard (and I do mean often) that schools need to emulate the firing practices of corporations and promptly fire the incompetent regardless of tenure with the institution.

One of the flaws with this suggestion is that corporations don't actually do this. Anyone who has built attrition models for a large company can tell you that, unlike layoffs, firings of employees with more than four years of tenure are extremely rare. Defenders of corporate practices would argue that those employees who make it to the four year mark are almost all competent, that pretty much everybody you'd want to fire has quit or been fired by that time.

The trouble with this defense is that, though it may be perfectly reasonable in isolation, it is difficult to reconcile with the standard reform argument. You can't believe that the culling process is this effective and still accept the premises that education should follow the corporate model and large scale firings of tenured teachers will significantly improve our schools.

Moving past that paradox, how do corporations handle the occasional incompetent? Even if we stipulate to an amazingly effective culling process, a few losers will inevitably make it through. Anyone who has logged some time in cubeville will tell you these people can be difficult to dislodge. Removing them disrupts the company, hurts morale and entails admitting a huge mistake. Faced with with all this, companies often employ the same strategies that reformers decry in schools -- they either shuffle incompetents off into meaningless make-work jobs or they leave them where they are.

Most of the incompetents go unseen by the general public but there are some conspicuous exceptions, something I'll save for the next post.

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