BLUF - I fired an employee today in a situation where we didn't get to steps 5 and 6 of the final stage coaching model, but where step 5 basically took place with my boss while I was out of the office.  I feel feel like a failure and feel terrible that it was likely a surprise to her, which it never should be.  (More details on the multiple months of coaching below).  My key question for you is how to answer questions from other team members about her departure.  I sent out an email at the end of the day that she no longer works at the Company.  If I get direct questions about whether she was fired or quit, is it sufficient to say "I wouldn't share your personal employent information with whoever asked and don't think it's appropriate to discuss hers."?  We have a lot of new team members (new positions due to supporting previous and future growth of the firm overall), and prior to this there had been only one retirement in the department in 3 years and one other departure prior to that, where the person decided to not work for a few years.  I don't want other employees to feel like their jobs are unsafe.  I also am usually pretty open and honest in most topics.

Background:  I reorganized my team in March to support growth of the company and career objectives of existing employees.  One of those was the accounting manager when I started as the head of accounting, but informed me on my first day that she didn't want to manage people.  She was an active participant in designing the structure of the new team and the job responsibilities of her new role.

Performance issue:  However, she misrepresented her skills and knowledge from her former position (pre-me starting) and she was not effective in her new role.  When offered a learning plan, a gap assessment and a path to learn her new role, she did not act on any of it unless asked to do x y z by next Tuesday and then it would only be half done.  Multiple conversations on that generally end either to sobbing or excuses and multiple requests for a commitment from her to do x y z did not make a dent.   Part of that coaching including very direct feedback that her behavior towards the employee who moved into her old position was not acceptable.  There had been months of coaching before I directly asked if she was sure this was the right role for her - she didn't seem happy.  I discussed with HR and my boss the possibility of an alternate position and she was looking forward to that idea.  She had been with the company for 7 years and had a mixture of really stellar work and work that did not go well at all.  She generally was open to and acted on feedback until the person was hired into her old role and she learned (by looking at data she shouldn't have looked at) that the new employee made more money than she did.  We never got to the point where we were talking "if you don't do x y x we may be talking about termination".

Last 3 weeks: I went to a work leadership training, then vacation for a week and then had surgery and was out in medical leave for a week.  When I returned, she had done a very poor job on a project that was assigned and discussed in detail before I left - my boss gave her feedback and followed up with that feedback in writing.  She responded by saying 1) it wasn't her fault 2) there wasn't a procedure to follow and 3) she didn't know what she was supposed to do.  Basically, completely disclaiming any responsibility for the work she produced.  Then HR called my boss and said they came across the employee hired into this employees old role crying because the training that had been delivered to her by the poorly performing employee was so condescending and abrupt.  The combination of those factors so angered my boss that when I returned to the office, we had a meeting with HR and he felt very strongly that no alternate position would work and she needed to go.  I talked to my other direct reports yesterday about how things were going with the reorg and asked explicitly about several employees, and all universally (and reluctantly) had varying versions saying that she was being very toxic to the team.  None of them had discussed this with me previously, so I was unaware.  Either way, I fired her today, but feel terrible that we never got to steps 5 and 6 of the final stage coaching model and that the termination probably came as a surprise.


LEmerson's picture

"I wouldn't share your personal employment information with whoever asked and I don't think it's appropriate to discuss hers..."

That seems like a snotty way to put it. I wouldn't say anything like that to anyone who was my superior.

Speak with HR to find out what to tell whom. There are lots of possibilities where you would be obliged to dislose information to anyone who asked, depending on who they are. There are legal factors, company policies, and communication issues to name a few. Unless you're an employment lawyer hired to give legal advice to the company it's not up to you what to say to whom.

I'm a bit surprised the employee lasted that long from your description. Six months of misrepresenting her skills and knowledge, lack of correcting behavior with a performance improvement plan, multiple sobbings instead of any improvement. I would agree that the information about the likelihood of being terminated should have been discussed long before, but I can't believe being fired was a surprise to that employee or anybody else.

Looking at payroll data a person isn't supposed to be looking at can be a crime or at least a legal liability for the company. How did the person gain access to private employment information? That alone should have at least triggered a written PIP, or instant termination. Did HR know she did that? To be honest I had an employee once who went into another employee's work files when she had no business doing that. I didn't say a word to the employee. Instead I fixed the problem so nobody could gain access unless authorized. I held myself accountable for allowing it to happen and fixed it. Unauthorized access to employment files is even more serious than my situation.

You knew this employee had bad blood for the person who took her old position at a higher rate of pay. Reading between the lines it looks like you left this employee with a project that involved training the object of this employee's wrath and took off for three weeks.

I don't mean to beat you up, just being honest with my opinion that it was a mistake to keep giving last chance after last chance to someone who is unable or unwilling to do what needs to be done. It seems you got stuck on the mode of trying desperately to save this employee's job instead of moving the process along. Unfortunately the jar of pickles fell off the shelf while you were gone, leaving a Cleanup on Aisle 3 for your boss to take care of.


Ariashley's picture

That employees role included reviewing payroll (as she's the accounting manager) before it posted to pay people, so she sees everyone's payroll information.  I sometimes review it instead (if she was out), though I can't say I review it and recalculate anyone's salary.  That said, she was on an employment notification list related to all salary changes and new or terminated employees.  And yes, I discussed that issue with HR when it happened to discuss whether more than the feedback that "it's not appropriate to utilize other employee salary information for you're own personal use, despite having access to it a - will you agree not to do it in the future?" was warranted.   Given that the HR process directly emails her and our payroll specialist that info, it's hard to argue that she shouldn't have accessed the information.

That said, there was one incident I was aware of in April where the employee was rude to the new employee.  In that circumstance I gave immediate feedback that it was not acceptable to let how she feels bleed into the rest of the team and that her anger towards the new employee was misdirected, since clearly I hired the new person and agreed on her salary and it wasn't the new employee's fault.  She agreed that it was misdirected, apologized and in all future meetings I didn't see any similar behavior. I knew she wanted to be paid what the new (and much more experienced) employee was being paid, but did not know she had a "vendetta" against her.  The training for the new employee was split between me and the now departed employee.  I had about 2/3rds of the items on the training plan but generally didn't do those tasks on the regular, so the former employee was walking her through the process in detail and talking through the "what could go wrong" things.  As I mentioned, in all my weekly conversations with the new employee, she didn't mention that it was going poorly and I did ask how training was going and whether there was anything further I could clarify. 

I sent an email to the team last night (per HR guideline).  An no, obviously if an executive leader called to talk to me about it, I'm not going to dissemble.  But if other direct reports (her peers) or indirect reports ask, it doesn't seem appropriate to say "she was fired" when asked if she fired or quit.  My direct reports were aware from her behavior that she wasn't happy. I doubt most of my indirect reports were aware.  I had a couple of skip level meetings in the last week and the skips were all super happy and excited to talk to me about new things they had learned.  

And, yes, my unplanned surgery was inconvenient...

My boss, HR and I had frequent conversations on the situation.  She was poorly served by the company in the merger through which her company was acquired .  Before I agreed for her to go into the new role, I talked our Chief Strategy Officer, who had been CFO previously and this employee had reported indirectly to him.  I asked if he could tell me more about her skills in that area.  He also thought she had learned to do a key task that would be 50% of the new job.  I think she didn't understand the knowing how to do it wasn't just a mechanical exercise, but an ever changing problem solving exercise that has quarterly updates in rules.  She thought there would be a super detailed procedure that said put number from report A into box 1.  But both what's on report A and what is supposed to go in box 1 can change every quarter because 1) the company is growing heavily and 2) the rules change.  She was learning how to do it, but clearly wasn't excited about it and definitely wasn't currently capable of making improvements or other tasks on the roadmap for that position.  It wasn't clear that there was a gap between what I understood her skills to be and her actual skills until mid-April.  She was doing things to learn more and improve, but only if I pushed.

LEmerson's picture

It's a different situation if the employee had authorized access to the information. Unauthorized access would be a specific act regardless of how the information was used. If on the other hand the employee was authorized, the issue shifts away from how the information was accessed to how it was used. The facts get murky when you're talking about a person being extremely rude to a co-worker then assuming it was because of salary. Maybe you're right, but you know what they say about assuming.

There are lots of great podcasts on the feedback model. The theme on all of the feedback models is to focus on specific behaviors rather than trying to navigate what someone might be thinking. I wouldn't have any problem giving feedback if someone someone hacked into sensitive information because it's specific and identifiable. I wouldn't want to go anywhere near analyzing or dealing with why someone is rude to someone else. What matters is the specific behavior you want to change, and a committment to change it.

It looks like you did everything you could to manage this employee to success, but sometimes it doesn't work out. If it's not working out, nobody's doing any favors by prolonging anything. That's what the process is about in what you referred to in steps 4 and 5. In my career, once the decision was made that an employee wasn't going to make it, I would terminate the employee as soon as feasible. I don't know how fate works, but if I'm having them hang on with me they might miss other opportunities.