At a recent company “speak out” session one of our associates spoke about the upside of our values culture, as well as the cost.

His point was not the money we invest in developing our culture, but the human cost of creating and maintaining an organization aligned around a core set of values. He used the example of associates who worked hard over long hours, and made personal sacrifices for the company, yet were fired or left because they did not adapt to the culture we are building.

He’s right—there is a cost.  Not everyone thrives here; our expectations of each other have gone way, way up. We have to have a high degree of interpersonal skills, self awareness, the ability to give and get feedback, the ability to lead and follow. And not just at the top, but in our trucks, in our stores, on our shop floors, and in our call centers.

These are not bad people; far from it, these are people with families. People with sons and daughters, people with mortgages and bills, people with hopes and dreams. They have extraordinary potential, same as you and me, but for some reason or other it doesn’t work; there’s a mismatch. Our responsibility as leaders is to unlock the potential of those who work here, and help those who don’t succeed leave with dignity and grace.

Is it more ethical to let someone go who will not thrive in your culture, or to keep them on because they work hard? This is one of the hard decisions that we face every day—who to hire and who to fire is one of the toughest things we do, and are both equally important.

The other cost is how the people who leave our organization feel about us. We are an ‘all in’ kind of culture—we ask for their hearts and minds. We encourage them to build strong, trusting relationships with their peers. We connect with them in a fairly deep way—at the level of values, at the heart of who they are as people. And when we break that relationship, when we ask someone who has been committed to us to leave, it’s emotional and heartbreaking on both sides.

People grieve. They may be angry, they may be hurt, they may feel like we broke a sacred trust with them. It sounds melodramatic, but as I connect with former associates, sometimes the emotions, even after years, are raw and just below the surface. Even though we try to help people leave with dignity and grace, we don’t always get it right.

Yet, we still have to do it. To do otherwise, to fail to hold people accountable for the culture we are building and the skills required to thrive in it would be unethical. We couldn’t stand before our associates with integrity and do otherwise. They deserve our best, and our best means making tough decisions and accepting the cost of those decisions.

Leadership, whether it’s transforming a culture, leading a strategy, or letting employees go, has a cost. Often that cost is emotional and even spiritual.

The next tough decision you face, consider all the costs—and not just the financial ones.



Tom Epperson

Tom Epperson

Dr. Tom Epperson is the President of InnerWill, and an instructor in Virginia Commonwealth University’s Executive MBA program. Tom is a certified business coach and has a Doctorate in Leadership from The George Washington University. Tom works with clients on cultural transformation, leadership development, executive coaching, and igniting individual and organizational potential. Previously, Tom served as the HR Director for Luck Companies, and played a significant role as one of the architects of Luck Companies’ cultural transformation.

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