I spent some time talking recently with bright business types, including some who work as consultants. They pointed out that hard times for the rest of the economy can be good for consultants, who can be brought in to say things that management either cannot or will not. One of the hardest things for an organization to do is to get rid of people in order to cut costs. There are various approaches, each of which brings problems, the consultants said. Selling off a whole division is probably the least difficult solution, if a buyer can be found. But after that, it comes down to picking and choosing among the staff, and that can often create even poorer performance, especially if it takes a long time. Often management will use the opportunity to get rid of “difficult” employees. Or they may try to assess the productivity or usefulness of individuals. A particularly silly approach seems to be to offer a voluntary package to those who choose to leave, which seems guaranteed to get rid of the best people, the ones who are reasonably confident of getting something else.

I asked: “why not fire people at random?”

“You can’t do that,” was the reply.

But why not? It seems to me that a truly random lottery of some sort, preferably with either no protected positions or else entire ranks protected, could offer enormous benefits. For one, management would not be required to make difficult decisions that are almost certainly wrong in at least some cases. For another, people who were “let go” in this manner would have no reason to believe themselves victimized, or of low ability, or anything else negative. Their number came up, and that’s that. Of course, the mere fact that they were chosen at random would not prevent them from jumping to negative conclusions, people being people, but it might make management feel more comfortable, and at least a few of the fired might benefit too.

In the end, one of the consultants said he thought there might be laws against it. Maybe there are; nobody knew. But if so, isn’t that a bit silly? Anti-discrimination laws make a lot of sense, although one wonders why managers need to wait for hard times before ridding themselves of difficult employees. But a procedure that by its very nature cannot be considered discriminatory seems to me to have a lot going for it.

Who will be first to try?

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