Pass the Trash

People aren't trash.

Some management cultures pass the trash. That is, take non-peformers from one area and send them to another. Indeed, ever the watchdog for the organization, HR sometimes shows the red card then yelling, you can't pass the trash!

We do this to protect the receiving corps from assuming trouble unknowingly.

Good old HR.

Lest I sound sanctimonious note I've used this phrase myself. Unlike Bill Clinton I damn sure did inhale, drink the kool-aid and every other euphemism you want to use to describe aping cultural artifact.

And, like Bill, I was wrong.


At some point leaders have to ask, who do we serve?

Life offers a thousand masters – love, money, greed, power, truth, beauty and so on – but that's not the point. The question is, how do we serve people?

In this particular vernacular, its more than the derogatory nature of the crude refence, its the subtle point underlying same. We never actually intervene with the person to find out what they need/want. We don't care. We're moving the problem from one point to the next in the ultimate Ponzi scheme.

As they say on the Street, it doesn't matter since IBGYBG (I'll be gone, you'll be gone) before we see results.

People don't matter.


This post is not a simple rant against pejorative language: it uncovers underlying belief systems. Cultures that don't think its okay to move a problem from one place to another have a definitive world view: you make it here or you're out.

Admittedly this view has certain benefits. While not properly defined as motivation per se, this technique sure as hell gets our attention: up or out. Consultancies, law firms and accounting practices have long used this approach. And when you enage professional services, you're damn glad they did.

Is it the right approach for your firm? That's a foundation question.

The alternative of course is to find an environment people can shine in even if that requires time and experimentation. Edison, Oprah, Churchill and Dr Seuss are all examples of people who were abject failures in prior attempts and then, in the right circumstances, flourished.

So there is a plausible counter argument that says its appropriate to find the right environment for people to perform in as opposed to simply writing off x percent of investment in hiring as a cost of business.


As with many of life's questions we have no absolute answer.

It is a valid organization strategy to say people have to make it in their roles or leave. Its just as beneficial to hold that there are multiple potential paths and [therefore] its a sound expense of time and money to pursue longer-term development.

The question really becomes what is your firm's framework? What lens do you choose to see the world through? Once that view is established its paramount to share the framework with employees so they understand the environment they've immersed themselves in.

Neither is manifestly right or wrong, but they are very different and thus not suitable for everyone. People have a right to know expectations.

Whatever practice you employ, know this: people are not refuse.



6 thoughts on “Pass the Trash

  1. Like you, I’ve been there. Years ago an employee was passed to me. It was like he drew the Old Maid card because I ended up being the manager who fired him for poor performance. Then the prior passers challenged me for doing it. I explained the reasons and they echoed how they had them too. This was a 20 year employee who actually wanted to be an elementary school teacher. If he hadn’t been passed, he may have gone back to school for that. Passing isn’t good for anyone and I feel just as irritated about it like it was yesterday. A fantastic post, Christopher…as always.

    • Agree Dawn: it’s not fair to people to keep them in the dark about their value. Better to be honest and let them choose what to do about that.

  2. Oh, Christopher, great post, and this happened all the time in banking … employees WAY past their due date stayed and were not only miserable but worse yet, made everyone else around them miserable.

    It used to be that leaders were expected to move their people into jobs that would fulfill them and help them thrive, not so anymore. Nowadays, it is ‘everyone fends for him/herself’. I don’t disagree with this entirely, but the onus is also put on people who have been around just too long to care, or have little interest or motivation to do better. It creates a real ‘generation gap’ in the work environment, which leads to discontent and friction.

    Communication from the top is important. Vision is important, and of course, as you say, people are important and not disposable.


    • Thank you for writing Eden: a really important point here. It’s not just that’s “unfair” to employees to keep them in the dark about their real value. It’s also that their presence alone may bring other people down! This is a big watchout!

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