Trash Day

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In my neighborhood, Wednesday is trash day. While I greatly appreciate the service, it isn’t my favorite day for two reasons. One, I have a nose like a bloodhound. I can smell everything, extremely well and trash day only magnifies it. Household garbage, grass, and yard clippings, even cardboard, I smell it all. Add a bit of warm weather or a strong gust of wind and it can be pretty overpowering. The second reason for my dislike is because of what I will call a general lack of “trash literacy.” When people don’t secure their garbage properly, there is a considerable amount of fallout once the robotic arms return the cans to the sidewalk. Now this wouldn’t be so bad, but when folks wheel their cans back home, they don’t tend to tidy the area, so refuse is left behind.

Recently, we were doing manager training and I was reminded of a terrible phrase someone used. When poor performing employees are moved from one assignment to the next or given an undeserved glowing reference so they would be hired away (and no longer be a problem) this was referred to as “passing the trash.”

I am just as unsettled by the memory of that expression as I was when I first heard it. It’s off putting and stinks, just like trash day.

First, it is wholly unacceptable to call anyone “trash.” A manager may find someone frustrating or irritating, or even believe they are a “poor fit” and should consider trying to “be successful elsewhere,” but people are never trash. To call someone “trash” implies they have zero value and should be discarded. Not a pretty picture at all.

The other reason this term is so galling, is that like those homeowners who don’t pick up the fallout after the garbage folks have provided their service, this behavior implies a complete lack of responsibility. If an employee is truly wrong for an organization, position, or a culture, then someone saw and knew that and likely didn’t take appropriate steps to coach, retrain or even remove the person, instead they left the problem for someone else to deal with. While I go ahead and deal with my neighbor’s garbage day overflow, most people won’t. (And please don’t think too highly of my actions, as I am deeply annoyed by both having to do it and also seemingly being the only one capable of doing it).

The only reasons I can imagine that people don’t handle it themselves is that it’s unpleasant to deal with garbage and/or they don’t see it as their problem, since they rolled the can to the street and thought they were done. I assure you though it’s somehow even more unpleasant when it isn’t your garbage and litter will eventually become everyone’s problem.

And perhaps it’s the same with a poor or underperforming employee. It is zero fun to deal with poor performance, but being the manager doesn’t give one license to be “nose blind.” The expectation is, you will take care of it, because everyone is counting on you.

So, what would we say to a manager who finds themself in any version of this problem?

  1. There’s more at stake than you realize when you don’t handle poor performance or a bad fit. It affects the morale and engagement  of your other employees and people will quickly become resentful of folks who are coasting without consequences.
  2. Delaying action will only make it harder later. Inaction tends to be viewed as acceptance, so you not dealing with a problem gives the impression that one doesn’t exist. Think of it this way, one bag of garbage may not have much of a smell, but let a landfill develop and it stinks to high heaven.
  3. You can do this! While it’s true that conversations about poor performance can feel difficult, they are totally doable. And it’s highly likely the employee won’t be that surprised. It’s the rare person who genuinely thinks all is well when it actually isn’t.
  4. Being honest is the kindest, most loving thing any manager or leader can do. When someone is in a position or an organization that isn’t right for them, they won’t thrive and that takes its toll on everyone. Allowing them the chance (if it comes to it) to find a place where they can be excellent contributors is good for everyone and ultimately what we all deserve.

While we all wish it weren’t so, things like trash day and underwhelming performance are all just a part of life. But neither has to turn your stomach. Let’s be careful what we discard and how we do it, for everybody’s sake.