Letting Go


I'm going to fire someone today.  I think it is the right thing to do, but it still doesn't make me look forward to today.

This isn't the first time I've had to let people go.  One person was just not getting the job done, became discouraged, and was spending all day playing games on the computer.  In several cases, the person was clearly in the wrong job.

I've been let go several times--rarely outright fired, but told that the job I had set my heart on and had been struggling to do was being given to another.  In one case, I was demoted because I refused to fire a pregnant worker, just because she was pregnant (her work was fine).  I quit the company the next day, and was well out of it.

Today is a bit different.  The employee (let's call him Jake) is from overseas, working on an H1 visa.  He will have to scramble to get a job here, or else go home in the next few weeks.  His home country isn't doing all that well economically, and he may have trouble getting a job there.  He will have an even harder time getting a job here...

Today is also different because the reasons for terminating him are primarily interpersonal.  Six months ago, it was clear there was a problem (he'd been at the company then for about a year).  We started giving him very explicit directions, both in terms of his work and his interpersonal interactions.  The work got a bit better.  The interpersonal stuff didn't.

I really like the company I'm working for--I think this is the best job I've ever had.  One thing I like about it is that the company's core values are simple and reinforced constantly, leading to a very coherent workplace.  One core value has to do with the workplace, that decisions are to be made on the grounds of what's best for the company and the workers, with respect for everyone and a positive attitude--that we are all empowered to find and fix problems and issues.

Jake is very judgmental.  His past experience is with military contractors, who work to a thick rulebook of plans and don't write a line of code without two specs and three reviews.  He thinks our company needs to reform itself and start behaving in this way.  He points to our difficulty in meeting deadlines, not seeing that, in the business we are in, getting it right is more important than getting it there fast, and that our development process doesn't so much miss the goals as change them, with quite a bit of internal checks and balances, in part to respond quickly to changes in our marketplace.

So Jake loves to tell us how to do our jobs better.  At the same time, he writes spec after spec, and produces relatively little code.  Worse, despite all the specs, his code is rather uninspired.  Each thing he writes tries to solve the whole job--designing a little bit of code to fill a gap just isn't something he can do.  That's something he could learn to do--in fact, he is learning, slowly, to do this.  He's better than he was six months ago, although for someone of his salary level and experience, he is still at the bottom rung of the productivity ladder.

The real problem is the judgment.  He stumbles on some aspect of the product that was debated in public meetings, whose minutes are online, and in which the course was set many months ago.  All of a sudden, there is a flurry of emails.  Not to the people who made the decisions, but to the people who are implementing them.  He calls them fools, and squawks about how terrible the proposed change is.  He pisses people off.  He really pisses people off.

His manager has been patient--it's been a challenge for her since it is only her second year as a manager, and Jake is a real "growth experience".  She's spent hours with him showing him the consequences of his actions--he doesn't get what he wants, he pisses people off, and then he loses out on the information that is passed around informally, making the next surprise and blowup even bigger.  She has spent even more hours dealing with the people who were pissed off, some of whom stormed into her office demanding that she fire him.

At the latest meeting with her, me, and HR, we decided we were at the end of our rope.  She was still bothered by his latest attack (Jake called her lazy, among other things).  We agreed that I'd deliver the message.  She has suffered enough.

I do think this is the right thing, for her and me, the company, and even for Jake.  But he is volatile, judgmental, and his back is to the wall.  It could be an interesting day, but I doubt that it will be any fun.  I'll let you know...

Thank you for reading.

Copyright © 2001-2003 Pete Stevens. All rights reserved.