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Why You Should Fire Your So-So Employees

Many years ago, my wife hired a housekeeper who had emigrated some time earlier from Russia. She was in her late fifties and highly educated, having been a language and music teacher in the former Soviet Union. I had fun teaching her American idioms and watching her break stuff.

Ella was sweet and eager to please, but she came with a serious set of cultural limitations. As a random example, she once left the baby unattended -- conspicuously in a carriage out on the front lawn ­­-- while busy with a project inside the house. It was a warm day, after all. Only thing she forgot to do was put out a "Free Baby" sign next to him.

Then there was her total lack of familiarity with basic cleaning and household products, the kind we have in this country. So I might find her using Comet on the kitchen floor, or Windex on the mahogany bookcase, or Murphy's Oil Soap on ... well, you get the idea. I tried in vain to convince my wife to find a better solution, but she kept insisting that Ella wasn't so bad. At least we had someone. (And who else, she was quick to point out, would want to work for me?) Finally, after months of procrastination, we did let Ella go to another family in the neighborhood --they spoke fluent Russian, bless their hearts -- and we hired a seasoned pro who grew up in Wisconsin. (It's not about the country of origin, by the way -- it's about the skill set.) Cathy's been with us 15 years now, and most mornings I can't find the Alka-Seltzer without her help.

With Ella we had, like, half a housekeeper. When the inconvenience of hiring a new person was looming - -or we simply lacked the urgency to pursue other options -- it was easy to fall back on the idea that it was enough if a living, breathing human showed up for work each day. Once she was gone, however, the path to action was clear and unambiguous. In other words, having no housekeeper was actually better than having half a housekeeper -- because with no housekeeper, we realized that we needed to hire one.

Corporations drag their feet exactly like this more often than anyone cares to admit. The resulting irony is that while millions of good people are unemployed or under-employed right now, lots of marginal and mediocre performers stay in place at every level because it's just too much hassle to replace them.

Moral of the story: Don't let the half obscure the vacuum.