Now This Happened: A Self-Managing Firing Round

Lennard Toma
Written by Lennard Toma March 30, 2019

It was August 2018 on a Tuesday morning. The weather was cheerful. So were the colleagues from Keytoe that sat at the morning meeting that day. Not knowing yet how they were going to feel at the end of the meeting, let alone at the end of the day.

Although people were in a cheerful mood, they knew something was up. The 4th client in a row dropped the monthly budget, because of cash problems due to the heatwave that summer. Keytoe was in trouble.

So the first question that was asked at the meeting with 16 of the 40 people that work at Keytoe: 'How big is the problem?' The answer: ‘We’re able to pay salaries for the two upcoming months, then it’s over.’

Next question

'How are we going to solve it?' This question was posed by Cedric, one of the owners and usually the one that would try to save the day.

The group answered: ‘Well. We are going to solve it. You’re not doing anything. Please leave the room.’ Somewhat hesitant and flabbergasted Cedric left the room.

The reason the group excluded him from the meeting, was that Cedric is a huge optimist and has rescuer syndrome. He feels he should save the day, goes into a frenzy, sometimes succeeds, but often without a real sustainable solution.

The group figured they didn’t want that, fearing the measures would need to be graver if we were too hesitant on the negative measures (cutting costs aka firing people) now. So not to convince us the other way around, Cedric needed to go.

We have an organization where the colleagues decide everything. They hire their own colleagues, they decided on each others salaries, but we always wondered whether they would fire each other as ....
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The possibilities

The positive measures were sales, sales, sales. But it was August. A lot of potential clients were on holiday. Before we would see some cash the two months would be over. Of course we needed to keep our current clients at all cost. And we needed the negative measures cutting costs as soon as possible.

Keytoe is a full service marketing agency in The Netherlands, so the only costs we have are the office, the people and beer. And of course the biggest cost was… no not beer, but the people.

The group concluded that people had to go, in order to save the rest. The sixteen attendants agreed, but then came to realize they had to decide who should have to go. With that realization the group became eerily silent. Now what?

Keytoe uses the advice process to make decisions. But a devastating one like this, no one person wanted to take charge. The group had to decide together. Without management or a boss that does it.

The list

One colleague whispered: 'Should we just start then?’ In order to not influence each other, each person would write the names of colleagues that according to that person should leave down on post-its. And so they did.

Some people wrote five names, some three, others only one or two. The post-its were collected. One colleague stood up and wrote the names on a white board, counting the mentions behind the names. The names were organized from most counts to the least.

Because everything is transparant within Keytoe, the costs per colleague were written behind the corresponding names. And they counted until they’d save the amount of money that we needed to save in order to stay break-even in the following months.

Five names were on the list. Silence again. A few of the names of that list were in the room. So they started in logical defense: 'Can’t we think of something innovative in order to revive our cash-position and let us stay?'

The rest of the colleagues answered with pity: 'Please tell us how, because we can’t see how.' They couldn’t think of anything realistic. So they suspended the meeting. The list was sent to the entire organization with the note: 'We need to let some people go in order to keep Keytoe alive. This is the first draft of the list. Because we don’t want more people to leave, we want to decide quickly. This afternoon we meet again. Make sure you’re there!'

Check, check, double check

The meeting in the afternoon was with more colleagues of course. The list was presented again. In the meantime, people had checked how we could ease the ’suffering’.

The procedure to get the people in social payment systems in Holland was checked. And we already checked for other companies the people could be working in. This was presented, which made the colleagues on the exit-list a little bit more relaxed.

Then they started to do some checks:

  • Let's list the people that we desperately want to stay in order to keep Keytoe alive.
  • Who are the key players for the current clients that would leave if these players left.
  • Which disciplines are mostly needed, and which aren’t.

The people on the list weren’t on the to-keep list. They weren’t the key players. And some were in disciplines that saw little efficiency until that point. The list was pretty accurate.

The colleagues decided to sleep it over.

Wednesday morning they got together again. They didn’t think differently about the whole situation and the list. The group made the decision.

Final steps

During the next three days, the five colleagues on the final exit-list consented with ending their contracts. Recommendation letters for them were being written. They got help with resumés and what was a next possible step in their career. They would leave with one month pay and that would be it. Everything in order to make the transition as smooth and humane as possible.

They of course didn’t like to go, but thought it was the logical step and understood the decision. They still loved Keytoe despite the decision. They signed and left.

The next Monday, everyone but the five people went back to work again. Like nothing had happened.

On Friday we fired 5 of our own colleagues. The next Monday, everyone but the five people went back to work again. Like nothing had happened.
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Keytoe recovered and is doing fine again. Four of the five ex-colleagues got a job within two months. We still have frequent contact with all of them. Number five (the most doubted one on the list) was re-hired a month ago. Woohoo!

My thoughts on it all

My feelings were bouncing from one extreme end to the other during that time. On the one hand I thought it was horrible that we had to let go of our friended colleagues. On the other hand, this was the epitome of what I had been striving towards.

I wanted to help create an organization where the colleagues decide everything. They hired new colleagues on their own for some time now, they decided on each others salaries, but we always wondered whether they would fire each other as well. Fortunately they never had to. Until now. And they did. And even kicked out the owner to not mess up this process. It was kind of perfect.

The maturity was there. Everything went kind of smooth and fast. And the people that had to leave left with their heads held high, because they were part of the decision making process. They understood the dire position Keytoe was in and helped sacrifice themselves for 'the greater good’. The rest of Keytoe applauded them and they are still held high.

I think this couldn’t have unfolded itself more humane than it did.

I hope it never happens again, but if shit hits the fan, the group will manage.

Lennard Toma is an organizational psychologist who helped Keytoe change to a free form of organizing. He started KeytoeY with one of the founders of Keytoe to help other companies change into organizations where people enjoy their work. He is the author of the book ’99 Problems But The Boss Ain’t One’, about the problems faced when changing to this kind of organization. Lennard’s Why: To break through mindsets so that I can spark wisdom and make the world a bit better.

Written by Lennard Toma
Lennard Toma
Organizational Psychologist and allround experimental nutty guy. Love pushing some boundaries and do a lot of different things.
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