As many as one-fifth of all corporate workers do not respond positively to change and could be fired with no great loss to their firms, a prominent business expert said.
"Companies are saddled with the corporate equivalent of perpetual grad students who hang around for a long time but are not getting anywhere," said Charles Bishop, president of consultants Chicago Change Partners of Northbrook, Ill.
"We think about the one manager who needs to be terminated and say, 'Oh, gosh, it's inhumane!' but who's thinking about the 10 people in the organization who are miserable because that manager doesn't develop anybody?" Bishop asked.
Mediocre managers in positions of authority "tend to recruit and keep people around them who are not very good either, and often cause their qualified associates to quit," he said.
"Change has to be managed not with your heart but your head," Bishop said. Executives "fool themselves a lot of times because they care, because they're decent and because they don't have a process [for evaluating and terminating properly], so everything gets muddled up and they keep people who shouldn't be kept."
Bishop has written a book to tell executives how to assess change capacity within the company. "Making Change Happen One Person at a Time" (Amacom, 2000) classifies workers as "A, B, C and D players," rating them on their capacity to thrive and evolve in turbulent times.
The "A" employee is "proactive," ahead of the curve and initiates change. The "B" employee is "active," willing to tackle new challenges. The "C" employee, however, is "reactive," Bishop writes, reluctant to doing things differently but capable of changing. As for the "D" employee, "the probability of these players changing is very slim," he said.
The "D" employee "not versatile and blocked," apt to fight needed changes. The author said his grading system is key not only when deciding which employees should be terminated but also when searching for employees to promote.
"Walk into any chief executive officer's office and he'll tell you, 'I'm looking for people who will help me take the company to the next level,' " said Bishop, who consults with many blue-chip outfits.
Like many other work-place experts, Bishop said, "most corporate performance appraisals are relatively worthless." Evaluations by a single human resources official are inadequate, he said, and could be flawed by reliance on past performance or psychological tests.
He would rather assemble an evaluation team of human resources specialists and line managers who can challenge one another's opinions when they discuss which employees to promote. No single executive should pass judgment on an individual who reports to him or her, Bishop said. Such executives have trouble being objective.
Valerie Sessa, an authority on the executive selection process at the Center for Creative Leadership in Greensboro, N.C., offers similar advice about hiring. "Team-based and systematic selections at the higher levels are the most likely to succeed, but the process is often ignored, resulting in unsuitable hires. Top-level executives often do the selecting themselves and don't always use effective resources."
According to Chicago Change's Bishop, because an employee has changed effectively in the past is no guarantee of future success. The evaluation team must consider the employee's "versatility," which Bishop defined as "being able to adapt and take on different roles as change dictates."
"The focus of the versatility rating is on making an educated guess about how someone might behave in a changing environment," he wrote.