In This Economy, Getting Fired Takes Hard Work

To hold down a job these days, a worker seemingly needs one essential trait: a pulse.

Some jobs have always required little more than the ability to stay awake. in the tightest labor market in a half-century, people in higher functions may get by just going through the motions, too.

“You’d have to be incredibly lousy” to get fired as a software engineer at the moment, says David Cancel, who employs roughly 700 people as chief executive of Drift, a Boston-based marketing firm that uses artificial intelligence. “Most companies—and us, in some cases—are keeping people who wouldn’t be on the team in a looser market. The standards would be higher.”

Though some economists warn of a coming down turn, layoffs and discharges in recent months have registered at or near all-time lows, according to the Labor Department. Less than 1% of workers are getting pink slips, roughly half the norm, with job security especially sweet in finance, education, healthcare and the public sector.

To those giving less than full effort or just not up to the job: Your boss probably knows it. But there’s little guarantee of finding someone better anytime soon, so you’ll likely keep cashing that paycheck.

Much as businesses love to tout their ambitious corporate cultures—and have many ways of tracking employees’ productivity—some would gladly settle for mediocrity right now.


What impact is the tight labor market having on your business?

When the human-resources software company UKG recently surveyed about 2,000 managers, roughly two-thirds said they’d be willing to rehire middling former employees, and 16% said they’d take back anyone, regardless of skill.

“I call it bird-in-the-hand management,” says UKG Vice President David Gilbertson, who leads the firm’s workforce research. “The companies I talk to are all worried about recruiting.”

Businesses in a wide range of sectors are committing to training, or retraining, the people they already have, adds Jim Link, chief human resources officer at the Society for Human Resource Management. Onboarding a new worker cost thousands of dollars before the pandemic, according to SHRM, and has since become more onerous as many people report to offices part-time, if at all.

Employers “are looking at how to uplift the skill and capability of the employees that are on their staff, and they’re making great efforts to do that,” Mr. Link says.

That can mean teaching workers how to do their current jobs better or moving them to different positions, in hopes that they’ll be decent at something else.

Basically, managers are trying to become like Bill Belichickthe New England Patriots football coach who turned wide receiver Troy Brown into a solid defensive back, converted quarterback Julian Edelman into a prolific pass catcher and used linebacker Mike Vrabel to score touchdowns as a tight end in two Super Bowls.

Not that I’m advising you to slack off. The national unemployment rate touched 14.7% in April 2020, early in the pandemic, before falling to 3.6% last month. Now, some companies that boomed during the recovery may have overshot their growth plans. That appears to have been the case at


which last week said it would downsize its staff by 12%, eliminating roughly 2,500 positions.

Joshua Presnall says he was stunned to lose his job delivering cars for the company in Chattanooga, Tenn., after watching his office head count quadruple in two years. He soon regained his faith in the labor market, however.

mr. Presnall created an online spreadsheet where laid-off former colleagues could post their contact information and recruiters could do the same. Within a couple of days, more than 200 recruiters had entered their details, many soliciting applications from ex-Carvana employees.

mr. Presnall, 23 years old, says he’s lined up roughly a dozen job interviews and hopes to land a role that makes fuller use of his marketing degree.

“Being laid off might have been the best thing that could have happened for my career,” he says.

To figure out how bad you can afford to be at your own job, ask yourself this, says Benjamin Friedrich, associate professor of strategy at Northwestern University: “How valuable is what you do for the company’s bottom line?”

If you’re not terribly important, then your performance (or underperformance) isn’t likely to hurt much, and the irony is you may be worth keeping around in some capacity. dr. Friedrich says he hears from companies that are assigning menial tasks to so-so employees, instead of terminating them.

The stakes are higher for people in bigger roles. Several human-resources specialists told me that executives who post disappointing results may be in jeopardy because their failures are more costly.

Companies’ willingness to put up with subpar employees could prompt good ones to look elsewhere if they don’t feel adequately rewarded.

Wall Street banks that paid whopping bonuses after last year’s big gains in the stock market may not be able to offer such handsome payouts this year, with the Dow Jones Industrial Average down about 13% so far in 2022.

Mark Ross, a former banking vice president turned finance career coach, says a down year can stunt hard workers’ careers by reducing the number of available promotions. At a time when those who miss their numbers avoid harsh consequences, standouts may miss out on the usual incentives.

On teams where there is little distinction between good and bad work, morale can erode over time.

“You’re showing your top performers the bottom of what you’ll tolerate,” says Jessie Wisdom, co-founder of Humu, a company that helps businesses motivate their teams. “If I’m working really hard, but I see that management doesn’t treat me any differently than they treat someone who is doing the bare minimum, that is very demotivating.

“Why should I do my best anymore?”

Write to Callum Borchers at

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