by Esther Schindler

Would You Fire This Person?

Sep 12, 200815 mins
IT Leadership

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."

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.

One Last Chance

Eric gets a stay of execution, at least from the people who responded to the same essay you just read. (I’ll tell you his actual fate at the end.)

Only two of the managers who responded via online forums to the Eric scenario were ready to fire him immediately. One was Jean Fleming, content director at Babcock & Jenkins, a marketing agency in Portland, Ore. She said she wouldn’t hesitate to fire Eric as long as he could be easily replaced, his position could be eliminated or someone else could absorb his position.

“My rationale for letting him go is pretty simple,” says Fleming. “It is a burden on everyone else when someone is not quite cutting it.”

The other IT manager who was ready to fire Eric noted that Eric’s competence was negated by his inability to “fit in” and follow a normal work schedule. He was also concerned about the effect on the team. “If Eric’s issues are obvious to Evelyn, you can be sure that other team members see them also,” he says.

Both of these managers’ decisions to can Eric are based on the assumption that Eric’s failures have been documented. If Eric’s problems hadn’t been recorded, Fleming said she would give Eric a warning and six weeks to address improvement areas. Or she might isolate his scope of influence to prevent further damage.

Every other participant in the case study said they’d give Eric a stay of execution. Here’s why.

Eric’s Personal Improvement Program: Shape Up or Ship Out

The majority of respondents prefer to give Eric formal notice that he has to change, either as a last-chance warning, or as a sincere effort to get the guy to shape up. Gabrielle Roth, a network engineer, thinks Eric sounds like “a class-A jackass,” but she wasn’t sure anybody had confronted him about it.

Most managers recommended a performance review to establish a personal improvement plan for Eric. John Hamerlinck, a financial manager, says a manager must identify where Eric’s performance is now, what the manager wants and how to reach those goals if the manager is to handle this review properly. This performance improvement plan, which should be documented in writing, becomes a focal point for discussing Eric’s progress (or lack thereof), for negotiating with him about his performance and for answering Eric’s questions about his performance, says Hamerlinck.

The final step in the performance-appraisal process is for the manager to ask the employee to sign off on it. If the employee signs off, you have a plan with goals and milestones, says Hamerlinck. “If Eric doesn’t leave after agreeing and doesn’t meet the milestones, there are now grounds for further action, including firing,” he adds.

If you’re ready to have that meeting, the question then becomes, How do you effectively get the point across to the employee that his performance is serious business? That’s what we explore next.

What Do You Say?

Having to confront an employee about his poor performance is thorny territory for managers. When you have that meeting, experienced managers recommend leading with the positives. For example, Anja Schuetz, a people management and performance coach points out some of Eric’s strengths: He obviously sold himself well in the interview and is a good self-marketer.

Network engineer Roth says after opening the conversation by complimenting Eric’s willingness to take on new projects, she’d point out why he has not been given leadership roles more than once. “It’s hard to explain to someone that they have an unrealistic assessment of their own abilities,” she says. “Past performance reviews would come in handy here, as well as the observation that he requires a lot of hand-holding on basic tasks.”

The key to having this conversation go smoothly is to stay nonjudgmental. Schuetz says she would use Eric’s job description to compare what is expected with what he is delivering. “He needs to know exactly what is expected of him and what the right way to do things is, so he can see for himself that he is doing it the wrong way,” she says.

The close of the meeting is the most important. The manager must ensure the employee agrees with (or at least acknowledges) the assessment, understands his job is in real danger and either makes a commitment to change (usually by signing a document) or prepares to separate from the company.

“I would close by telling him that I only see two options now: an improvement plan or him leaving the company to find a job or environment that’s better for him,” says Schuetz. “I might ask him if he sees any other solution (no matter if I’d agree with it, just to give him the feeling I’m trying to find a solution with him and that he’s valued and important enough to give his input, too).” She’d then give him a few days to think it over, and then they’d talk about the details of the improvement plan if he decides to go for it.

Why put all this effort into such a problematic employee? Because Eric deserves his chance…

Give Eric an Opportunity to Redeem Himself

In moving ahead with a performance appraisal and improvement plan, a manager can have one of two intentions: to either get enough documentation to fire their Eric, or to truly help him fix his problems and make him a productive and happy employee.

Most people prefer to reform Eric, both to save themselves the effort of finding a new employee and because they optimistically believe Eric can be effective. They hope that empowering Eric will cause him to rise to the occasion. And if Eric’s attitude is genuinely good, they could reposition him into a different role that better suits his personality and skills.

Jonathan Goldson, a business technology management consultant, has his own tactics for helping his workers improve. He establishes key performance indicators (KPIs) to measure and evaluate his employees’ work and to facilitate follow-up discussions on what went right, what went wrong and where to improve. There is little reason for an employee to ask about a promotion if all his goals go unfulfilled, says Goldson.

Goldson also suggests offering small carrots, such as training or conference attendance, to increase the individual’s morale and willingness to exceed expectations. “Fear of being fired only makes that person do just enough not to get fired,” Goldson says. Despite the work involved for the manager, the extra effort benefits the employee, overall department performance and, eventually, your own sanity, he says.

Offering problem employees like Eric one last chance gives them the option to leave on their own rather than wait to be fired.

If, in the final analysis, Eric doesn’t meet his goals, you have the ammunition necessary to let him go. And that paper trail is critical because it helps protect the reputation of your company and your reputation as a manager. A software security professional in Connecticut notes that the paper trail was lacking in the Eric-Evelyn case and that that lack of a paper trail does more to incriminate Evelyn’s management than it does to Eric’s performance. “The manager did a poor job of managing expectations, and Eric should not suffer because of this,” he says. “If you fire him, it will send the message that employees can not trust management.”

Through all of this deliberation about what to do with Eric, don’t forget to trust your instincts. Stephen Laughlin, director of IT for the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, says the decision to fire someone is, in the end, a judgment call. “If as a manager you feel that you have reached the end of the line, it may, in truth, be more of an emotional decision as opposed to a objective one,” he says.

So what happened to the “real” Eric? It’s time to tell you…

Eric’s Actual Fate

Eric is still at the company—at least to the best of Evelyn’s knowledge. (She left a few years ago.) He chugs along, she says. “It’s been eight or nine years, and he hasn’t gotten that promotion yet.”

The company has had several layoffs, but each time other people got the ax, says Evelyn. Because of the nature of the job, a manager can’t use layoffs to fire people they aren’t happy with, but only when the job is no longer needed. “As clueless as he came across,” she says, “I find it hard to believe that Eric understood these nuances—but he sure managed to be on the right side of the line.”

Evelyn says all Eric’s managers considered the downside of firing or laying him off, and they all independently concluded that coping with Eric was better than having the position go vacant. “Since we were never sure we would be able to hire a replacement, we kept him. Given that everyone after me made the same decisions, I suppose I must have made the right choice (or at least not an obviously bad choice), but I’ve often felt it wasn’t in the company’s best interest to keep him, even if it was in mine.”

She’s still wondering about Eric years later. “I remember a few times when I just wanted to say ‘Go!’ but I would end up feeling petty about what was annoying me (you want to fire him for asking too many questions?) and I would get over it.”

Now it’s your turn, reader: What was your answer on Page 1? And how did it differ from Evelyn’s actual response or the response of other managers? Let us know in the comments. Include your current job title, too; we may see variations based on where you are personally on the company ladder.