Three years ago I read Leaders Eat Last by Simon Sinek and enjoyed many aspects of it. One concept that stirred me up was his contention that people need to work in a “circle of safety” where they don’t ever have to worry about being fired.

Sinek’s belief is that people who are concerned about the possibility of being fired can’t bring their best self to their work. I think he has a good point in this. There have been a few times in my career when a colleague was fired, and for privacy reasons, we couldn’t be told why he was let go. I recall wondering if I, too, was at risk, and that caused me to be a little more cautious and to hold back more at work than maybe my best self would have.

I’ve also had several friends go through an RIF or two… or three. (In case you’re not familiar with this term, RIF is a “Reduction in Force”—also called downsizing or rightsizing.) It was quite easy to see how this affected the survivors and how it made them overly cautious, knowing they might be next.

While I believe Sinek is hitting on something important when he says people need to feel safe and protected from being fired, I don’t believe that a guarantee of lifetime employment is possible, let alone the best way to bring out the best in people. I do believe in the importance of feeling secure from a shocking pink-slip experience, but I also believe it should be balanced with some tension around accountability and performance.

A Better Option?
As often is the case with me, when something stirs me up, it won’t leave me alone until I’ve come up with an option that feels better. This tension between feeling protected from being fired and still needing to be held accountable continued to work on me for several months before an idea came to mind that might provide a reasonable balance between accountability and performance.

The idea comes from the world of soccer (or “football” for some of you like Gerald). Here’s how it would work:

A company would create a clear list of things that could get a person fired on the spot. These would be very clearly called out for all in the company to know, like stealing company resources, intentionally falsifying documents, inappropriate sexual advances—especially to people with less power in the organization—and so on. This relatively short list would be as simple and clear as possible, and everyone would know that any one of the described behaviors could get a person fired that day. These things would be called Red Card offenses.

In soccer there are certain penalties that can get you thrown out of a game without a warning. You see this in action when the referee blows her whistle, comes up in the face of the offender, pulls a red card out of her pocket, and raises it for all to see. The offender is then “fired” from that game.

This general idea could be implemented in a company, though an actual red card would not be needed and the punishment wouldn’t be publicly administered. Only the person being fired would be told of the Red Card offense and then moved off the field, so to speak.

In soccer there are other penalties that don’t result in a red card, but they are still serious—serious enough to prompt a yellow card. It takes two yellow cards to get kicked out of a game, so if you already have one yellow card, you know to be more careful so you don’t get another. Nobody is ever kicked out for only one yellow card. In the system I’m proposing, Yellow Card offenses are less egregious, and examples can be so numerous and nuanced that it would be impossible to call all of them out.

If implemented, this Red Card/Yellow Card process could go like this:

  • If you commit a Red Card offense, you will be fired on the spot.
  • If you commit an offense that your supervisor feels is serious enough to put your job at risk, then she would give you a yellow card. And yes, there would be an actual yellow card so there would be no misunderstanding what is happening. The card would communicate that your job is at risk and also include some verbiage of what you’ve done wrong and what is expected in order to get out of the danger zone.
  • As stated above, these offenses would include too many examples to try to identify upfront, though an organization may want to outline some examples to help employees understand what behavior puts a person at risk for a yellow card. These examples could include showing up late most days, or berating colleagues in meetings, or missing deadlines, or coming to work buzzed, etc.
  • In general, yellow cards would last three months. If a supervisor felt it needed to last longer, it could be extended, but at some point the person would enter the circle of safety once again.
  • Like in soccer, everyone would understand that no one can be kicked out of the game with only one yellow card. Only those employees who are in a yellow-card danger zone need to worry about losing their job on the spot, and then only if they commit another Yellow Card offense (or a Red Card offense, which would get anyone fired on the spot).

I realize that many companies have similar processes—like a verbal warning, which can be followed by a written warning. But I do worry that they aren’t used enough or are not communicated clearly and directly enough to the employee. With a strong commitment that no one will ever be fired without committing a Red Card offense or two Yellow Card offenses, the great majority of people can feel safe, much like Sinek describes in his circle of safety concept.

Maybe you work for a company that wouldn’t be willing to make this kind of commitment. But maybe you could do this or something like it with those who work for you so they can operate in their own circle of safety, thus allowing them to bring their best selves into their work.

I hope what has stirred in me is helpful to you in some way. If you have any thoughts or questions, please let me know.

Be great this week!

Image by Thomas Leth-Olsen. Used under CC BY-SA 2.0 license.