Firing Employee #1

Hiring bright, talented people is one of the aspects of startups I like the best (see Finding Employee #1). The flip side is that you will also have to fire people. This is the story of the first person I had to fire.

Tom (obviously not his real name) had been with Distil for a while. He was now the most senior member of his team. As the most senior, I really wanted him to be a leader and role model for the newer members. He was quite comfortable being a worker bee, content to do his job outside of the spotlight.

Really, I’m to blame for his eventually getting fired. It’s all my fault. Because I thought he should be more of a leader I started giving him key assignments. I never discussed this with him, and he was the type who would never bring it up. And I didn’t realize that not everyone wants to be a leader. I just assumed that he was happy to have more responsibility.

It wasn’t that the quality of his work began to slip. It was still the same great work he had always done. Just now more people depended on what he produced. Tom was often fuzzy on his time estimates. If Tom would say a job would take one week, what he meant was it could be done in one week if everything went well.

This impacted the other team members. They felt that Tom was affecting their job performance. They would take him on his word and then make their own estimates. When Tom was late, the rest of the team would also be late. Many of them came to me, concerned that I would see them as not doing their job well.

I listened to them patiently but didn’t hear them. I thought this was just a case of Tom needing more time and training. He was getting used to the role so couldn’t the team cut him some slack? I defended Tom. I made plans to get Tom the training he needed. But I didn’t hear what people were really saying. They felt having Tom in this role wasn’t going to work, that he wasn’t the right person. I was a pretty stupid, out of touch manager for putting him in this role. And by not hearing this, I further proved to my entire team that I was a stupid out of touch manager. They stopped complaining to me, which I took as a sign that things were starting to work out.

A little while later another member of our executive team took me aside. He told me that I was losing the respect of my whole team. My team thought Tom wasn’t pulling his weight and that I didn’t care. I had to do something ASAP before people lost all respect for me.

What should I do? “Fire Tom,” my friend told me.

This was all my fault. There must be someway I could fix it, without firing Tom. I met with HR and found a coach we could engage. I met with the team and told them I would be working personally on the scheduling and project management. If anyone had any concerns that anyone was going to have trouble meeting any commitment, let me know and I would work on it. Notice the vague management speak, I could feel my soul shriveling. Everyone knew what I was really saying — let me know if Tom is late and I’ll light a fire under him.

Of course this did nothing to help my standing with the team. And it put a lot of undue stress on Tom. So now I was hearing everyday how Tom was late on this or Tom now says it will take two weeks instead of one. Even with all of my effort, I could not ensure Tom’s work was on time.

Man, was I looking forward to Tom’s meeting with the coach. The coach was a professional at this. The coach could solve this problem for me. This was the silver bullet.

The day of the first coaching session came. Tom didn’t show up for the meeting. I called his cell, his home. No answer. I thanked the coach for his time. Then I waited for Tom. I knew what had to be done.

When Tom finally arrived I called him into my office. He had some excuse — actually it was probably legitimate. I still had to fire him. He went to his desk, packed up some personal items and left. The entire team watched his walk of shame. It was horrible.

Since then I have had to let more people go. That first experience taught me some important lessons.

Dignity The need to fire a person is rarely their fault alone. Most times I’m at least partially to blame. I hired the wrong person. I moved someone into the wrong role. I ignored a situation and let it get out of control. Recognizing this, it is important to give a person their dignity. Let them hold their head up high even though they are losing their job. I’m not talking about simply spinning the situation to a positive angle. I will spend hours with an employee helping them with their transition and working on the messaging to the team. All so that when they step outside my office they can look others in the eye.

Positives Everyone wants to know why they are being let go. I used to tell people the reasons. In my experience they already knew why, my telling them just confirmed it. Worse, it was kicking them when they were down. Instead I focus on their positives. I tell them how much I enjoyed working with them and I will miss them. If they want to discuss what they did “wrong”, I suggest we meet later in the week. Once they are home, they are going to tear themselves down on their own. They don’t need me doing that as well.

Speed The biggest lesson is to fire a person before it becomes a problem. Through experience, I have become hyper vigilant for early warning signs. Once I see behavior like becoming withdrawn or disengaged, I know I need to step in. It may be time for them to move on. I’ll start with a conversation. Often I don’t need to fire them. They just need a little nudge or encouragement to start looking for a new job. That is a fantastic outcome. Other times it is a problem that we can fix. That too is fantastic.

This has become a longer post than usual. Thanks for reading this far. I hope my mistakes can help others. For those who are curious, I hear Tom is doing fine and that he has fully recovered from his horribly inept firing.

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4 Responses to Firing Employee #1

  1. JohnH says:

    Great post. Small grammar policing:

    > They felt that Tom was effecting their job performance.

    They felt that Tom was affecting their job performance.

    >it put a lot of undo stress on Tom

    it put a lot of undue stress on Tom

  2. trevelyan says:

    In cases where startup culture screams “we need this in a week”, it is rare for young developers to proactively create conflict by providing realistic estimates instead of “best case” scenarios. The natural impetus is to step up and be a hero, something that is encouraged by other members of the team, who communicate in all sorts of ways that faster is better and don’t ask too many questions when they hear what they want to hear.

    It sounds like that might be the deeper problem here, in part because the initial complaints are about time estimation rather than speed or quality of work. And also because Tom clearly started performing above expectations. If his estimation skills were the fundamental problem, an objective review of his plans by someone with development experience and who was not invested in shortening the development cycle should have identified areas where work was taking too long. This would have made it objectively clear if Tom were actually under-performing and provided a second opinion on what constituted a realistic development timeline. If the problem were really with Tom getting rid of him should not have been difficult, nor require an awkward pep-talk from a non-involved party with what this reader can only presume has zero experience with software development.

    The fact that this wasn’t done points to unrealistic expectations and poor management: multiple people were tasked to wait on a single piece of input instead of work being structured in loosely decoupled processes. The team was probably pushing for this because of time and money constraints, and there is clearly something negative going on if the other employees are starting to play blame games instead of adjusting their own schedules. In situations where companies are growing and have revenues, you are less likely to witness this kind of thing because there is no single critical execution path for company survival: people can take a bit of time to work on related projects and a good coder like Tom could have been shifted into a less critical position as well, moving him to away from bottleneck work and perhaps even assigned independent work less likely to lead to burnout, which may also have been in the cards here if this is describing a long-term position.

  3. Fulea Stefan says:

    The entire thing got me picturing a samurai soap drama where “respect” outweight everything, even life. And that kind seriousness of your environment – to that of a religion that is constantly asking for sacrifices.

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