On the Psychology of 'Liking' to Fire People

By James Fallows

See two updates below. A reader on what she heard when Mitt Romney said, "I like being able to fire people":

Your post reminded me of a similar thought process I've had myself, on the idea that no decent person would "like" to fire people.  I think I've said as much.  And then I contradicted myself.

I am a woman in a 98% male industry [construction].  I have had less than my share of misogynistic, threatening, and belittling crap over the years as compared to my fellow women in the industry (perhaps because I'm freakishly tall) but I've certainly had more than my share than the men.  And as I came up through the apprenticeship I learned to deflect, to always let men save face, to gently steer their wandering hands elsewhere, to work my way around those I ran into who simply wouldn't treat me as a human being, to expect to be turned away from jobs without a second's consideration and just move on to the next. And I've been successful, but it's exhausting.

Then I made foreman- and had a crew.  And on it was a man who I'd worked with a couple of years earlier- 20 years my senior- good enough at the job, but he was bored and resentful under my direction.  He thought he could run the crew better than I could, and didn't bother to hide that too much  (might have been true- I was green).  One day at lunch he revealed that he had been undermining me by intentionally doing bad work in a way that followed the letter of the instructions he'd been given.   It so echoed all the sexist condescension I've had around me my whole work life- but suddenly, let him save face, change the subject, work harder to prove myself, and don't let it get to you were not the only options on the table.   I fired him.  Boy, did it feel good.

And technically, I laid him off.  We always lay off, rather than fire, as a courtesy, since in construction people rely heavily on unemployment.  And being laid off is not that big a deal, since everyone gets laid off at the end of the job anyway.  I told my boss why I'd laid him off - that he was a good enough worker but he was bored and had a bad attitude, and that he'd probably work out fine working for someone else- and my boss hired him a few months later to be a foreman himself.  So I did him no lasting harm, and didn't expect to at the time.

None the less I was kind of appalled when I heard myself telling that story to someone, at the glee in my voice when I said "I fired him". My Mitt Romney moment.

I understand what the reader is talking about. More later.
Update A reader in Massachusetts on the imbalance of "firing," even when Romney's remarks are understood as applying to insurance companies and not individual workers:

Taken in context, his comment is in some sense true, because I would sure like to be able to fire MY insurance company sometimes, usually after someone forgets to say "Mother may I have a referral". [JF note: My wife and I are in the process of trying to 'fire' our auto-insurance company, for related reasons that I need to get around to describing, and I understand both the rational need and the emotional edge.]

However, *I* don't get that privilege.  And if I had private insurance (i.e., not group insurance through my wife's employer), I would be rather more scared of things working the other way round -- if I had an expensive health problem, the insurance company might try to find some way to fire me.  Except that with ObamaCare, I won't have to worry about that problem.

Somehow, despite attending Harvard Law School, despite attending Harvard Business School, despite establishing universal health care here in Massachusetts, Romney seems not to know this.

Update-update. A reader in California writes with this important point:

Any one who's actually had to fire someone knows it is a wholly dreadful experience.
 
But all those people who lost their jobs while Mr. Romney was at Bain Capital were not fired by Mr. Romney himself.  Underlings did the actual deed, so he escaped whatever measure of pleasure or pain he might have derived.  That is not to say he has not at some time directly fired a person -- I imagine he has.  But, mostly, he has relied on others to do it at his direction.
 
From where he sat, the employees were commodities, not people, commodities who were in the way of improved financial results.  I bet he never saw a list of names, only totals and the amount of money that would be saved.
 
The statement -- whether in context or out of context -- belies a lack of understanding and concern about the human impacts of policy decisions.  That, I think, underlies the outrage about the statement.  Does Mr. Romney have any heart at all?  That has been part of his problem all along.

And -- why not? -- one more:

Can we also make note that many liberal voices have already come out to detail the nuances of Romney's firing comment, while noting its Bain ear. I don't recall the conservative defense of Kerry's war spending votes.

What does this say about the our particular partisan divide?

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2012/01/on-the-psychology-of-liking-to-fire-people/251147/