"The guy was not doing so well, so we had to let him go..." casually quips the converser when speaking about the recent going-ons at work. Back here in California, firing incompetent people is an everyday phenomenon that one simply lives, so much so that no one assumes that s/he would not be targeted by managers when periods of low performance and intra-office conflicts persist. Even when one performs well, structural changes or financial problems at one's workplace is enough of a reason to fire people, and people, while angry or anxious, simply get on with their lives afterwards.
The casual attitude toward firing employees is something that I, quite honestly, sorely missed while living in rural Tanzania for the past two years. Firing people is a big deal, for a multitude of reasons. First, given the lack of available formal sector jobs, any local who manages to get a formal job would like to keep it for life. Since they do not expect themselves to quit (especially since farming and starting their own businesses tend to be risky and pay comparatively little), they also reciprocally expect whichever companies that hire them to also play their part and keep them as employees for the entire duration of their careers.
Such expectations are buttressed by local laws supporting labor rights. Theoretically, the law does allow for terminations, but in actuality, the authorities make their implementation so cumbersome and painstaking that it is often impossible to undertake. An employer that wants to fire an employee is expected to give at least three written warning letters at minimum one-month intervals, followed by independent employee committee to evaluate the past performances of the employee in question. The whole procedure would take months, during which the employee continue to be paid. Negotiating severance package can be cheaper.
Moreover, any employee terminated after such a lengthy process can still file complaint with the local authorities if dissatisfied. Whenever the authorities take up the complaint, it feels that the cards are stacked against the employer, especially the foreign ones. Foreign NGOs in particular are quite keen on preserving their clean image in the minds of donors, so are willing to acquiesce with the authorities' demands. The authorities, for their part, fully knowledgeable of the employer's reputational concerns, will push for the employee's rights, threatening bad publicity and restrictions on in-country operations for the employer.
Often, the result of the toxic back-and-forth is that the employer does not initiate the whole termination process in the first place. For foreign NGOs in particular, the costs of potential damages in relationships with all-powerful local authorities is simply not worth the benefit of getting rid of one bad employee. Employees, knowing full well the cost-benefit calculations of the employer, become less inclined to perform at full potential. The consequence is an employer with hands tied when it comes to employee affairs, and employees who see no incentive to do more than the very minimum they need to get by.
Of course, there are other methods to get employees to perform well aside from the specter of termination, and they are certainly employed frequently. But the olive branches of potential raises, promotions, and other incentives only work well if the employee in question cares enough about such benefits. However, on-the-ground observations have shown that there are plenty of locals out there who see little benefit in putting more efforts in for more money. For these people, having a job that constantly pays "enough" to get by at minimum work is really the ideal situation. No more is needed.
The ability to fire about allow for the employers themselves to operate efficiently. Using an example from California, the state's booming tech industry has created many nimble, flexible startups that can quickly change and adapt to changing market conditions and needs. As the company changes with the market, there is no doubt that some staff members become unnecessary and need to be retrenched. The fact that this can be done so quickly in California allow small companies with limited financial resources to efficiently allocate them, focusing exclusively on what creates value and ruthlessly weeding out the rest.
The same cannot be remotely said for an organization operating in Tanzania and many other African countries. Some initiatives and trials are bound to fail, and their operatives bound to become redundant. But the inability to fire those operatives quickly mean that resources are sucked into continuing payments of their salaries for little productive work in return. The financial resources cannot be freed up to find more qualified staff who can initiate new projects. In the end, employers are stuck with useless employees and a shortage of money to invest, causing them to become more cautious and less ambitious when starting new work.
To be certain, there is no doubt that getting fired in California is much less of an issue for the fired employee than it is the case in rural Tanzania. The burgeoning jobs market in California ensure that the fired person does not have to face the prospect of planting maize for the rest of his/her life. But isn't the burgeoning jobs market present because of the constant firings? Large turnovers in many companies mean more qualified applicants on the market, which in turn draw more companies to base themselves in California to take advantage of the human capital. Taking a long view, the pains of a few fired employees should be sacrificed to create the preconditions for availability of more employers and more jobs.
Image Credit: https://cdn.mg.co.za/crop/content/images/2014/08/13/jobless13_landscape.jpg/633x356/