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Can you fire your mother?

Keith Tan
September 11, 2018
The question is a litmus test for the type of manager you would be. Your job as a manager, or as a member of any organization is simple – protect, defend and grow the organization. Very often, this means firing a fellow member of this organization. It might be a subordinate or even a peer.

People find it hard to fire someone. I find it hard too. It is especially so when this person is someone with whom you have a personal relationship with. As it often happens, colleagues form personal relationships with their co-workers. Looking that someone in the eye and telling them they are fired is tough. Let me break down why it is tough.

1. Firing someone is a negative judgment of a person
No matter how much rationalization you carry out, it is undeniable that it is a negative judgment of a person, as it relates with his fit with your organization or his performance within your organization. The person receiving such a judgment is very likely going to take it negatively, and personally.

2. It frays your personal relationship
If you have a personal relationship with said person, having been a colleague of this person, this act of firing him is going to fray your personal bond with him. Humans are genetically wired to be social creatures. We consciously and subconsciously abhor the fraying of personal bonds, especiall ones that we have forged through time and effort.

But here’s why not firing the person is the worse thing, and the selfish thing.

a.    You are harming the organization.
If this person is not performing, or is not a good fit, he is harming the organization, and threatening the livelihood of all those within the organization – its employees, its customers. Your failure to act is unfair to them.

b.    You are harming the person you are not firing.
By sparing yourself the discomfort, and sparing the person the momentary sadness, you are selfishly preventing this person from realizing his true potential. Perhaps he is performing badly. Keeping him in your organization shields him from the true fact that he needs to change his attitudes and habits. If he is a bad fit for the job he is performing, then keeping him in your organization prevents him from finding his true home and calling in a different organization.

I ask the question “Can you fire your mother?”, because your mother is perhaps the most personal relationship you can have. She gave birth to you. If you can fire her, you can fire anyone. And yes, I have fired my own mother. For a short time, my mother was my assistant, but within a week, it became clear to me that she treated me like her son and not like her boss. I fired her because insubordination is not something acceptable in any organization. It’s just business.

PS: This is an opinion piece by Keith Tan, Group CEO of Wonderlabs. Wonderlabs is the leading service provider helping companies build and manage software development teams in Indonesia and Vietnam. Across our various shared and dedicated centers, we have over 350+ active software developers. Since our founding in 2015, we have grown rapidly through innovation and our relentless mission focus - Connecting you to success and productivity. Alumni of Wonderlabs have gone on to work at some of the biggest companies in Southeast Asia.

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"I started Wonderlabs because I experienced the problems of building and managing a distributed software development team in Indonesia from 2011 to 2015. I wanted to make it seamless and frictionless for companies to build and manage teams. On the other hand, I found that there are so many amazing software engineers in Indonesia and Vietnam and wanted to connect them to employers in Singapore, Hong Kong and Jakarta" - Ivan Chang, Executive Chairman, Wonderlabs Group

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