Why companies fire strong performers: Lessons from the New York Times’ ousted theater critic

Your time is up.
Your time is up.
Image: Reuters/Suzanne Plunkett
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Anytime an employee gets fired, there’s bound to be a lot of speculation and intrigue over exactly what went down. That goes double when the employee in question is a public figure—as is the case with the recent firing of New York Times theater critic Charles Isherwood.

Here’s what we know so far, according to an extensive report in New York Magazine. On Feb. 3, the New York Times dismissed the theater critic, allegedly because his emails showed that he had violated the venerable institution’s ethics rules. In the days since Isherwood’s termination, many in the business have weighed in on the Times’ controversial decision. Former Times editor in chief Jill Abramson, for example, sided with Isherwood, telling New York: “It’s hard for me to believe, knowing Charles as I do, that he would do something that was wrong.”

As an organizational psychologist, I’m fascinated by the lessons we can all take away from the report of Isherwood’s unexpected exit. But first, it’s important to highlight the one thing we can’t learn: What really got him fired. That holds true for your own colleagues who are unexpectedly terminated too. As much as we all desperately want to know the truth about why coworkers are let go, basic discretion—not to mention legal issues—mean that most of us never really get to know what happened.

That said, there are plenty of important takeaways from the narrative about Isherwood’s firing. Here are a few:

Don’t take a new job because you’re hoping for a different one. New York reports, “When Isherwood arrived in 2004, he was under the impression that [lead critic Ben] Brantley would soon retire.” When that didn’t happen, Isherwood reportedly grew “increasingly, vocally frustrated” with his second-string status.

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen employees accept new positions with similar expectations about rapid promotion—only to have their hopes dashed. The lesson here is clear: If you feel you’re overqualified for or are uninterested in doing the job you are hired to do, don’t take it.

Being a strong performer doesn’t mean you’ll get away with negativity. The powers that be seem to agree that Isherwood was very good at his job. But being good at your job doesn’t always make up for being costly to your organization in other ways. The story mentions that Isherwood had recently had tiffs with his editor, posted a sarcastic message about Times coverage of the arts to Facebook, and repeatedly (publicly) disparaged Brantley. This kind of attitude may get you turfed, no matter how good you are.

Bosses appreciate some competition among employees—until they don’t. If there is one thing that is undisputed in this case, it’s that the relationship between Isherwood and Brantley was nasty, to the point that Isherwood was slagging Brantley publicly while participating in a panel discussion. That’s bad form. But some speculate that the Times liked the rivalry between the critics and the motivational effect it had on performance.

This is another good lesson. Beware when your boss pits you against a teammate, hoping that the competition will bring out the best in you both. Bosses are fickle. The same boss that stoked the fires may turn on you for having crossed some previously undisclosed line. You’re wise to resist the temptation to see your coworkers as rivals, and instead form alliances that will help you both succeed.

Change with the times (and the Times). Isherwood was reportedly frustrated that the space in the Times devoted to theater critique was dwindling. Recently, he took to Facebook to publish a review that didn’t make the paper. His post was accompanied by a sarcastic note reading, “This may never see print, welcome to the new world of the New York Times.”

Resisting unwelcome changes in your company and your industry is tempting—but futile. Know that whatever you’re upset about, your boss is probably already losing sleep over the end of the good old days. The minute you chastise your boss for the difficult choices he or she is forced to make, you become a liability. If you want to make yourself indispensable, find ways to help your boss cope and adapt, rather than protesting the march of time.

With all this in mind, it’s worth noting that the Times is extremely cautious about firing employees. Most organizations don’t set the bar so high before letting people go—which means that any one of these mistakes could be taken as sufficient to justify a termination. Consider yourself forewarned.