Bad Employees and Bad Managers

As my career hunt progresses (I have interviews lined up with nearly half a dozen tech companies with Seattle offices), I wanted to get out a few more blog posts before my next employer imposes any rules they have about blogging.

This week, I want to talk about the downsides of managing people and being managed.  First, let’s talk about being a manager and dealing with underperforming employees.

I’ve had to do my share of terminations and position eliminations, and I can tell you that it’s not fun. There’s no joy in telling a person that they have to find a new source of livelihood, that their life and potentially the life of their family is being put in turmoil. However, when someone is repeatedly not hitting the bar for productivity, it’s the best thing for the company and the team to exit this individual. Keeping around low performers will demoralize the high performers, and there’s a cost to the company if someone is not returning your investment in them. A company mentor at a previous role phrased terminations as “helping an employee find their true calling somewhere else,” which is not a terrible way to frame the probable reasons for the underperformance in the first place.

The exact process will differ per company, but barring gross misconduct, the usual steps for exiting an underperformer are a verbal warning, followed by a written warning, followed by a PIP, which is a “Performance Improvement Plan.” A PIP is a set of strictly defined, and precisely measurable deliverables, usually over a three-to-six week timeline. Hit the goals, and the employee can stay, miss any one and they’re out. Smart employees who get to the PIP stage will note the trend and resign, or find a new role elsewhere during that time.

After much thought and experience, I’ve realized that, given an underperformer, I can usually predict who will stay and who will go within about a two month window, which is about the right time to try some mentoring and course correction for employees who can be saved, and certainly the upper limit on the amount of time a disaster employee should be kept around.

The key attributes of a salvageable underperformer are Awareness and Responsibility. An employee who knows that they’re falling short and proactively seeks out help from their manager, who owns their performance and looks for ways to improve, is usually one who can be saved (given that they take action based on the guidance given). These are employees who will come to a manager outside of normal One-on-One time, who will say something like “I know I didn’t do as good as we needed to do on this thing, and I want to know how to fix that,” who will fess up to a mistake or alert a manager to a failure before the manager even knows about it, and will look for ways to mitigate or prevent the mistake in the future. These are fine qualities, and this employee is coachable and improvable. At the very worst, these are the types of employees who, if they can’t meet the demands of the role, will look for something new, and as a manager, I could honestly recommend their drive and enthusiasm to a new employer, with the caveat that they were merely in over their head at a challenging role.

As an example (and one I’ve used before), I had a Test Engineer who was smart, enthusiastic, and looking for bigger roles, but who made a tragic mistake one day. She came into my office, teary eyed, and told me that while attempting to do some backup work on our backend services, she accidentally blew away our entire Live Production Database, and didn’t have an up-to-date backup that could be restored. She told me she would understand if I needed to fire her. My five seconds of silence probably did not reassure her, but I was more in shock that she immediately did the right thing by escalating the situation than by her emotional state or the state of our product. After all, we had dozens, not thousands, of users who were affected by this, few of whom had paid us more than a few dollars each, and we were technically still in Beta, so we could communicate this however we wanted. It also pointed out that we didn’t have a strict, checklist-based process for handling the Production Database, and our backup timeline needed to be more frequent.

Still, I told this employee that I was not going to fire her, and that she should go for a walk to calm down, and then come back in 30 minutes or so and we’ll talk about what we need to do next. We had a nice conversation after that about process and procedure, how she now had an opportunity to define that, and that the only tragic mistake she could make would be repeating the same error. This employee had underperformed on a few occasions, but always owned her mistakes, looked for ways to improve, and took the advice emerging better on the other side. Today, she is a successful engineer at a major media company.

The employees who cannot be saved are the ones who do their best to “get away with it”, whatever “it” is. These are the employees who hope a manager won’t notice their screw-ups, who say that some problem is not their fault, who blame other employees, market conditions, the work environment, or Whatever for the problems they’re having. These are the employees who say “I thought it wasn’t a big deal,” or “I don’t know what happened,” and then offer up no effort to figure out what did, indeed, happen. “Am I in trouble?” or “Am I being punished?” is a key giveaway, because they employee already thinks they’re doing something wrong, but hasn’t owned up to that, and is simply trying to avoid personal pain. Any one of these statements is an instant bit-flip for me, and triggers a kickoff of the above three-step process for exiting an employee.

Some memorable examples of these types of employees are the college hire who was consistently late to work in time for mid-morning daily Stand Up meetings, and when I called him on it, claimed that he was “just out too late last night.” Every night. There was the employee who left a secret device out where it was picked up by office movers, instead of locking it away in a safe as he was supposed to, and this device ended up in a public area. There was the employee who failed to deliver her numbers, or a plan for improving them, and when presented with an example plan claimed that “it’s just so hard to do all this.” All of these people had to go, and did, and I no longer have any tolerance for these types of behaviors or excuses. As a manager, neither should you.

Finally, I want to turn around and talk about preemptively feeling out managers when changing teams or looking for a new role. This one is actually a lot simpler, and actually comes down to “go with your gut.”

It may seem counterintuitive to the new role seeker, but you will never have more power or leverage in a role than when you are first applying. The second that you accept, you forfeit all of your negotiating stance. That said, hiring managers and recruiters should be doing their very best to woo you to the role. If your hiring manager is enthusiastic about you, listens well, addresses your concerns, and pays attention, these are all good signs that you will at least be well lead in the new role.

If you are ever talking to a potential new manager and they are checking their email, answering texts, looking elsewhere, striking up conversations with other passing employees, or in a rush just to get the conversation over, while they should be focusing on you and your questions about the company and role, then run far, far away as fast as you can. This is not a manager for which you want to work. If this is how they treat you when they’re trying to impress you, how do you think they’ll treat you when they’re not?

In hindsight, the very worst manager I’ve ever had did all of these things during our first conversation. He told me how important the role was and how much the team needed me, but he kept checking his phone for emails during our conversation. After giving an answer to each question I had, there was a curt “Allright? Anything else?” as if he just wanted to get the conversation over with, and move on to his next task. He even scheduled our initial chat for 10 minutes at the end of the day, instead of carving out time to diligently discuss the role and the future of the team.

At the time, I thought these were all problems I could live with, and potentially improve given time. I weighed the opportunities to work with a very bright team and make a real difference on the project. However, all of these were for naught, because being managed by this leader was insufferable. The same answering email behavior during the initial conversation continued during our One-on-Ones. Coaching was poor. I was miserable, and my performance suffered as a result. In hindsight, while the team I managed would have been adrift, the better move for my career would have been to stick with my existing team at the time, where my manager was excellent. (Why did I move? I didn’t know staying on my current team was realistically an option, as can happen when two Directors say “we really need your help over here.”)

So that’s it. As the saying goes, Fire Fast and Hire Slow, or perhaps “be hired slowly”. The key to knowing when to do each is to pay attention to the motivation and attitudes of your reports and potential managers. If something feels wrong, it probably is, and it’s better to preemptively correct that than to let it linger and get far worse over time.

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