Difficult But Necessary Words
Jim (not his real name) was the very first employee I was forced to let go. He had shipped a box of beers out for Christmas to his family. There is nothing wrong with that except, of course, they were some of our rarest offerings and he hadn’t paid for them. That’s a pretty simple case of theft. Black and white. Case closed. In choosing to take things that didn’t belong to him, he violated the other employees’ trust (as well as that of ownership).
As a brewery that is ever expanding, our goal is to build a team of effective employees. The hope is that a great nucleus of substantive employees will always be on our payroll. And for the most part, we have been very lucky to operate this way. However, there have been times where it’s a bit more Darwinian. Seemingly every time we stabilize the team of brewers and support staff only to suddenly find a new weakest link. As part of being “the boss” at our respective operations, I find myself from time to time needing to utter the words, “You’re fired.”
While I’m sure that some relish uttering those words, I do not. Letting employees go is never easy.
This column has been about the numerous challenges that a brewery owner faces behind the scenes, when the taproom closes to guests, long removed from the merriment of drinking the finished product in the glass. The more I thought about the business side of things, the more employee retention and the process for termination kept staring me in the face. I suppose it would be easier if we actually employed someone in Human Resources to keep a steady stream of candidates moving through our operations. We don’t.
When I was tasked with managing this brewery, I envisioned a staff of veteran employees. In my heart, I wanted to be one of those brewery owners who attracted A+ talent. Loyalty between employee and ownership would be the two-way street attracting people who desired to work for a progressive and imaginative brewery. After all, it’s the only kind of employee I would want. But the reality is, not all employees are actually wired that way.
I believe without fail we possess some amazingly brilliant employees. What’s also curious is that some of our longest-tenured employees are managers and not actually brewers on the production floor. In reviewing our payroll notes, fewer than half of our current 30 full-time employees have celebrated more than four years of continuous service with us.
I’ve come to learn our strength is in the collective. It’s not found employing major all-star-caliber brewers. No, our success has been our core employees overreaching each and every day. Watching our crew of employees achieve their tasks in unison is something anyone can be proud of, especially the brewer in me.
Championship teams always speak of the importance chemistry plays in the clubhouse. It’s often the one defining thing that separates good teams from great. But how do you go about fostering that in a brewery, especially one in its infancy? I’d argue that “trust” is probably the first word I would put on the table.
Since that first (and obvious) dismissal, I’ve terminated roughly 15 employees from our operation. In many ways, I think that number is too high. Some really never should have been hired in the first place (that’s on me). Others just didn’t care enough (that’s on them). And many were just aimless buffaloes who never separated themselves from the back of the herd and thus were collateral damage. Those terminations were simple and as businesslike as can be. “Thank you for your time and in accordance with the laws that govern in the state of California, we hereby terminate your employment with Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey.”
But those aren’t the terminations that gnaw at me. It’s the good people who made bad decisions that tug at my very core long after I uttered those famous last words. I continue to maintain that firing good people who made bad decisions is the suckiest part of my job. Thankfully our company handbook exists to protect the employee and employer. But it never ends well when we have to open that handbook and explain the cause for the separation.
If we have reached that point, we are most assuredly acting in the best long-term interest of the company and the other 30-plus employees and families who rely on our operations to exist. Since the day we opened Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey, I have repeated this phrase numerous times to anyone who will listen. At Port Brewing and The Lost Abbey, we are in the business of staying in business. It’s as simple a mantra as I can offer our employees. How well we collectively work at this across all facets of our operations ultimately will determine our longevity. And without fail, my first obligation is to my partners in this operation as the managing member.
However, I am often conflicted when it comes time to utter those words, “You’re fired.” Because I am also an employee of the company serving in the role of director of brewery operations, my allegiances can run deep to the employees who allow us to be so successful. Some days, I am forced to toe a not-so-pleasing line. And while I am not naïve enough to think I have been 100 percent successful, there is a fine line between being someone’s friend and being business foolish.
I have to imagine my story is pretty similar to many of the new startup operations who are throwing their doors open as we speak. Before opening this brewery, I had never been directly involved in hiring a staff, let alone knowing when it was time to create a new position. I had never worked to manage a payroll or had to make decisions about when to discipline versus terminate an employee. But the day we signed those documents, I became in charge of all that and more.
In eight short years, I’ve had more than my fair share of successes and failures in this regard. I’m not perfect, far from it, actually. I have made some very bad decisions in terms of hiring. But in all reality, I didn’t possess this skill set when we opened.
Now I make decisions for a living. Mind you, barley and hop choices seem so blasé when you can spend hours debating the merits of respective health-care plans and deciding on which vacation packages best suit the fiduciary needs of the company. But we’re still in business, which means I get to take some responsibility for a job almost done well. Of course many of those great employees we brought on board are a huge part of this success as well.
Where once I was the only one who could say, “You’re fired,” there is now a group of us who collectively wield this enormous power. It’s no longer just me reserving the right to utter those words. That doesn’t mean, however, I enjoy letting anyone go, no matter what the circumstances are that led to our parting of ways. And I am certain I never will.
This column appears in the July issue of All About Beer Magazine. Click here for a free trial of our next issue.
Tomme Arthur is director of brewing operations at The Lost Abbey Brewing Co. in San Marcos, CA.