Would You Fire This Person?

In this case study, we ask you if you'd keep a problem employee on staff, or if you'd invite him to "explore other career opportunities."

By Esther Schindler
Fri, September 12, 2008

CIO — The people who make a manager's life difficult aren't the ones who are incompetent. You can spot them and eliminate them without angst. It's semicompetent people who keep their managers awake at night.

No manager wants to fire anyone, least of all when the individual's work can be good—but just isn't often enough. The problem with these employees is that they exhaust your management skills; they can bring down the morale of the rest of your staff; and they can distract the team from achieving its real goals. But firing them isn't always the easy answer. Maybe you don't have any clear-cut reason to fire the person, because you fear harming your and your company's reputation or because the next person to get the job will be even worse.

It's at these times that you feel like the subject of one of those advice columns, "Can this marriage be saved?" There's a point, though, at which any manager says, "That does it." How do you know when you've reached it? Can you ever be sure you made the right decision?

Well, today you can. Because in this article, you'll read about a real employee (we call him Eric) whose work was below par, from his manager's point of view. Given the data here, you decide whether you would fire Eric. At the end of the article, you'll learn his actual fate.

As you read along, you'll be able to compare your decision with responses culled from 16 IT professionals and managers who weighed in on the Eric situation in several online forums.

And now, let's meet Eric.

Our Problem Employee, Eric

Eric's manager—let's call her Evelyn— hired Eric during the dotcom bubble. Evelyn had had the IT position open for more than a year without finding any particularly qualified candidates. Since no one in her IT area was interested in the position, she was desperate (always a bad sign). When Eric entered the picture, he had previously done a similar job, had a few walks-on-water recommendations and really wanted the job.

Eric negotiated well, partly because his neighbor worked for Evelyn's company and gave him useful details about the maximum salary Evelyn could offer without an executive override. Evelyn hired Eric at the high end of the salary range. She knew he wasn't great, but felt she didn't have any other choice.

After Eric was on board, Evelyn learned:

  • Eric's technical area is one that most of the people in his company disdain. But he likes this kind of work because it allows him to flaunt his power. He gave himself the title of architect. This was not well-received among his peers, and Evelyn had to take him off leading one project because of it.

  • Eric believed he was hired a level below where he ought to be, and that if he proved himself, he'd get a big promotion in six months. Evelyn never promised him a promotion, though she did say that if the company discovered it had made a mistake in classifying his job position, it would promote him once he proved himself.

  • Eric required a lot of hand-holding. Eric asks really basic questions, the kind of questions a manager might expect from an intern: "Where do I get notepads?" (We have an admin; ask her). "Should I be going to this meeting?" (Why do you think I put you on the invite list?) "What is xxx?" (A well-known industry term; have you ever heard of Google or even our company intranet?) This was still going on after Eric was on the job for six months.

  • He lacked common sense and professionalism. When Eric heard that layoffs were proposed, he asked Evelyn if he was on the layoff list, which put her in a very difficult position (She could get fired for telling him yes or no, assuming layoffs were in the picture). He told her he needed to know because he had just bought a very expensive "man toy" that he couldn't afford and would need to sell if he was laid off. Evelyn says this kind of behavior was typical; he didn't really want the answer. "He wanted to be reassured that he was valued and that I would never consider laying him off," she says.

  • Eric doesn't take no for an answer. He comes to work about 11 a.m., which is fine so long as his work gets done. But the company has projects and conference calls with people in Europe and Asia that are sometimes are scheduled at 7 a.m. Eric considers scheduling early morning calls completely unreasonable, even though the alternative is for the folks in Europe and Asia to stay in their offices till 8 p.m. or later. Evelyn said he could take the call from home in his jammies, but he had to be present on the call. He pouted about this for several weeks. "About the third time he complained that this was unreasonable, I had to say, 'Don't ask anymore. I'm always going to say you have to attend, unless you plan to take a vacation day that day.'"

  • Eric does an OK job. Other than educating him about playing big man on campus, he does his job well, if not imaginatively. While Eric was hired for a specialized position, over time the company expected its staff to gain new, wider skills. "It was hard to find things outside his original expertise that he was good at. He was not a fast study, but he was a good sport about taking on new things," says Evelyn.

Eric is at a level where one is expected to take on leadership roles. However, no manager has given him a leadership assignment a second time; in every attempt, he has bungled it. He doesn't seem to recognize how this has limited his career growth.

Evelyn's own job responsibilities changed as she moved up the corporate ladder, and Eric was no longer her direct report. She's gotten calls from his other managers, though. Everyone has asked, "Do you know how much he makes? How did that happen?" and "Does he always ask so many easily-answered-on-his-own questions?" (By then he'd been at the company for years.) Eric told each new manager that previous managers didn't see his strengths; could they make a plan to get him the promotion he deserved in the next six months? ("None of them agreed with his assessment, of course, and asked me if they were missing something," she said.)

In short, Eric is moderately competent, if overpaid. What do you do? You're the manager who decides if he stays or goes. Here are your options:

  1. Fire Eric. After all, he's an at-will employee, and you can find someone else to do a better job for less money.

  2. Document his inadequacies, and then fire him.

  3. Look for any excuse for a layoff. Even if it's just one employee...Eric.

  4. Have a heart-to-heart conversation with him to explain why his job prospects are limited. Maybe a personal improvement plan can make a difference.

  5. Sigh, and continue on with life. Not everyone who works for you can be the best.

  6. Call the human resources (HR) department. Let them deal with Eric.

  7. Something else. What?

Choose your answer before you turn to the next page.

Next: IT Managers explain how they'd handle Eric.

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