Recently, a close friend came to me with a serious career conundrum. He had just received a formal, written warning from his manager about his performance at work. The warning outlined four specific problems and gave him an ultimatum: It suggested that if he doesn't improve his performance in 30 days, his position will be eliminated.
My friend was blindsided by the warning. Never in his long tenure with this employer had he ever received any criticism of the sort. To the contrary, he had always received glowing performance reviews from all of his managers, including the one who sent him the warning. So why the sudden turn of events?
My friend's employer had a particularly bad month recently, and he suspects the company is looking for people to cut. He works in a department that doesn't directly produce revenue, which puts him in a vulnerable position. Making him more vulnerable is the fact that he's involved with a project that is not meeting its business goals. He believes his employer sent him this warning as an HR formality, so that they can fire him "for cause" (e.g., for performance issues) and thus not have to pay him any severance. If he is fired for cause, he probably won't be able to collect unemployment, either.
My friend maintains that the project in question is not meeting its goals because his boss, who is the only other person working on the project with him, undermines his ability to make it a success. My friend insists he is not trying to deflect responsibility. He cites numerous examples of ways in which his boss hampers his effectiveness:
- My friend performed an analysis of his project to identify ways he could get it on track. He identified a number of proven best practices he could implement to improve the project's numbers, but his boss insisted that he not implement any of them until a VP inside the company signs off on his analysis. The VP has yet to do so.
- When my friend does work that will advance the project, his boss literally undoes it.
- His boss gives him menial tasks and insists he work on these tasks instead of addressing his core responsibilities around the project.
My friend is clearly between Scylla and Charybdis: On one hand, he has to follow his boss's marching orders—however hair-brained they may be—because the boss is the boss, and if he battles his boss at every step, the boss will brand him a problem employee, and he could get fired for that. But the problem with doing what his boss tells him is that he can't address the work he really needs to focus on that will make his project a success. My friend is in a position where he cannot win.
So he asked me what to do. I offered the following advice.
1. Look for a new job. My friend is in a position where he cannot succeed no matter what he does. His boss seems to be out to get him. His best bet is to start looking for a new job.
2. Write a rebuttal to the warning you received. I advised my friend to write a response to the warning he received and to send it to his corporate HR department for two reasons. 1) It may make it harder for the company to fire him if he presents a solid rebuttal of each point outlined in the warning. (It might also make the company realize it has bigger problems with my friend's manager that it needs to address.) 2) If my friend ends up losing his job, he will have to make a case for unemployment. The written rebuttal is the first step in building a case that will explain to your local unemployment office why your termination was unfounded.
3. Start a paper trail. Make sure you have copies of your performance reviews, and start printing out e-mails that illustrate the problems you've had with your boss. You'll need this paper trail to make a case to your HR department and/or to make a case to your local unemployment office.
If you have more ideas for my friend, please leave a comment below. We both thank you!