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Submitted by twinsen on



I’ve been a long time lurker but have finally come across a small conundrum regarding a poor performer. 
A little background: I work in a combined Operations and IT department. The poor performer, Harry, is a database administrator/developer. I was originally a peer with him and helped him a lot when he first started. However, I got transferred for awhile to Europe and came back ending up (eventually) as his manager. I didn’t hire Harry. He was a shoo-in referral from someone else. Harry is also a contractor with a long tenure.
After becoming “the boss”, I started realizing Harry’s work wasn’t up to snuff since I’m now responsible for it. Since that discovery, I put in more controls, started O3s, gave feedback, coaching (as much that can be afforded for a contract employee):
·         Harry says his work is not always prioritized. Remedy: Restructured the weekly team meetings to show priorities in green, yellow, red statuses. 
·         Harry had to re-do the same thing 3 times over, causing business partners grief. Remedy: Introduced and coached everyone on more rigorous documentation for ‘What We Need To Do’. I bought some new tools for Harry and coached him to use it to minimize errors because of mistakes (tools also automated a lot of work that he did manually).
·         Harry says there is too much work for one person (some truth into this based on resource projections). Remedy: I can get Harry help but we have to put together training material and objectives. I handled the latter and delegated the former to Harry. Harry was “too busy” to do the material and I ended up getting a short term contractor in but now he is learning on the job while covering for one of Harry’s projects.
·         Noticed that Harry’s skills are lacking and that he is atrophying in the same job for years (assumed it was a morale or have not experienced success issue). Remedy: Assign him on new (small) projects with new team members to coach Harry. Team members simply lament that they have to fill in for Harry as Harry is constantly missing goals on projects. Team members are also unhappy their own work is being delayed. 
In the last O3, I gave corrective feedback to Harry, in which he states maybe his problem is time management. 
Anecdotal evidence I am hearing (this is very not MT I know):
·         A certain team member thinks Harry is delaying things to the end and then waiting for someone to bail him out. 
·         When I was out of the office, Harry and the temp help I got for him were debating who should do weekend work. As the temp contractor did not have access, Harry mentioned there’s no need to do weekend work and I would sort it out when I get back so not to worry. (Temp was even more scared of course)
·         Another team member is upset that Harry is delivering low quality reports, always past deadlines that she sets for business partners, and she has to end up doing a lot of manual work to fix it up. Said team member is driven to tears once, holes herself in an AV room to avoid seeing Harry.
·         My own boss tells me that Harry decided to make some change in a system that resulted in bad numbers being sent to senior management and then to an outside client. Another mistake would be a firing offense. 
·         The team was peeved (harsher words were used) that Harry decided to disappear on a milestone day because of work stress. It didn’t help that Harry’s twin team member made it to work despite illness.
The only thing holding me back from terminating Harry outright is his on the job knowledge. Losing him would set me back a bit. I tried in some remedies to draw it out (and to be honest, move him to better suited work) but otherwise, I feel like I’m harbouring a cancer here. Performance incidents really flared up in Oct so that’s when I worked through the points above. Now it’s almost like Days of Our Lives. 

Davis Staedtler's picture


Think about the ROI this employee provides. No amount of job knowledge fixes someone with performance that negatively impacts the people and the business in even worse ways. Check out the casts on Performance Management, Coaching and Making Decisions Effective. That will help immediately.

I think we've almost all encountered this. Hopefully you, and the boss before you have documented, documented, documented everything during this employees declining performance. I'm going to assume HR exists in this organization, and has already been contacted about this employee and has received the documentation. It's time to take the highest step in Performance Management available by HR. In my org, that looks like a strict time table (30 days) for goals reached and performance improvement which must be obtained prior to termination.

Just my thoughts. Mike Auzenne has probably faced this sort of Operations/IT Department situation himself and will hopefully weigh in.

-Davis Staedtler

Anandha's picture
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I would have fired him months go. Kudos to you for trying so hard. I am not that patient. People like this tend to be like an anchor to the team. They just slow you and the team down. Keeping him on for his niche knowledge is still a drag on the team - a drag on morale and productivity.

Good luck


twinsen's picture
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Thank you everyone for the advice.  

Anandha:  I'm known to be a little patient, although I don't think of myself as that.  All of the notes in the original post took a good 30 minutes to put down in Word before it ended up on here.  Through the process of working it out for the forum, and the comments everyone contributed so far, I know it looks like a no brainer decision. 

Davis:  I wish Harry's previous manager had noted some of this but he managed to get himself sacked, not before giving Harry a raise though.  It was only after that when I slowly discovered how the bad performance wasn't simply a sign of Harry rejecting my authority, but it had been allowed to fester while I was out in Europe.  I had a much bigger blurb before I trimmed everything down. The reason why I had mentioned it's an Operations & IT department is because we're responsible for the processing as much as the system that does the processing.  Harry had assumed his job was 9-5 in support of databases.  But my new manager is asking for a 60-40 (or even 70-30) project versus support distribution, which obviously was a struggle for the team to achieve.


(forgot I didn't sign off with my name!)

jhack's picture


You write:  "The only thing holding me back from terminating Harry outright is his on the job knowledge. Losing him would set me back a bit. "

Never keep someone under these circumstances.  It's likely they know less than they'd like you to believe.  And you'll quickly overcome the setback and then gain greatly when you have institutional knowledge of the job.  

One last point:  have you listened to the "late stage coaching" podcasts? 


twinsen's picture
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Hello John,

Yes - I just went through them on the weekend along with the How to Fire Someone podcast.  I imagine I'm close to the last stage.  I actually just gave that whole pep talk today in our O3 but I still didn't get any pointers/suggestions from Harry on how to improve his performance.  I left it at please think about it and we'll talk tomorrow.  So I guess we'll see.  Anecdotally, other folks are saying he is "worried" about his job now, which I guess was the whole point of it. 

I understand what you're saying.  Harry has been maintaining these batch jobs in a database that run on for 12+ hours.  I actually had someone else replicate parts of the same jobs (probably 6-8 hours of the total 12 hours) with new technology & design and they somehow got it down to less than 15 minutes.  So yes, sometimes I do feel like he is dragging things out to make it look more complicated than it should.

The thing is whether to continue working through the process and maybe there is a miracle (unlikely) or just pull the trigger and deal with the pain.


BartMasters's picture

<quote>The thing is whether to continue working through the process and maybe there is a miracle (unlikely) or just pull the trigger and deal with the pain.</quote>

A person who is a true underperformer, in that you've O3d, and feedbacked, and coached, and done all you can, and they just do not improve (for whatever reason) is an infection in your team.  You need to cut out the infection, and deal with the short-term pain, or long term the infection will spread, and you'll have higher performers quit because they're sick of carrying Harry's load.

So if you honestly believe you have done all you can - you have to make the hard call.  Else longer term pain will be much worse than dealing with the short term pain.

I would suggest however lay it on the line to Harry.  'Harry, if you dont improve x, y and z, your ass is out the door.'  Some people are blind/self-delusional enough not to realise how much trouble they are in, and need to have it honestly shown to them.

twinsen's picture
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I gave the ultimatum in the last O3.  However, I feel like I'm feeding Harry x, y and z, which doesn't really align with the late stage coaching model but I did mention the two big things with him (deadlines, quality).  The top performers are frustrated --- but not to the point where they are leaving.  I have said to them that I'm reassigning Harry's tasks so you're not having to work extra time to fill in for Harry and that I appreciated them stepping up to the plate. 

My manager also asked me to prepare new controls for the team to ensure higher quality and for the most part, the team is in agreement and not thinking we're just putting in controls because one guy isn't doing his job. 

I also sat down with HR to air out my story and they said it really should be in the last stage because it has been getting worse since October.  Otherwise, HR suggested I do daily status meetings and break down Harry's tasks - which ironically, Harry asked for, but I REALLY don't feel like that's going to help me out since Harry's position is not an intern or junior level role.

Thank you for the medical observations, though - it certainly feels like it. 


twinsen's picture
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I feel rather silly self-updating my own post but I thought I'd just say for the record that everyone's intuition that Harry was a roadblock was spot on. 

Whatever niche knowledge he had, we've started realizing it was more he was making the job too complicated for himself (or rather lacked the initiative to make it easier).  We've been running OK - although there were a few recoverable mistakes here & there.  But since he left, I haven't appointed a one to one replacement of his role.  And as my manager pointed out, even if there are a few mistakes, at least we're having the new person getting other stuff done outside of Harry's responsibilities.  Speaking of which, some tasks that I've shared with other team members look like things we should take a torch to anyway.  And of course, the people drama is gone too.

Two negative byproducts of the whole process:

1.  People on other teams have this polite quietness when talking to me now after the termination.  And whenever people are left off a list or denied access, there's this running joke that I may have terminated them. (They don't report to me!)

2.  My boss is pressuring me to start identifying any other underperforming staff and getting rid of them.  Lighting my own pants on fire and putting it out is not what I thought I'd want to achieve in my performance goals for 2009.   

Thank you for everyone's help. 



jhack's picture

Don't worry about other folks fearing you.  It's not necessarily a bad thing.

Tell your boss that you consider having to fire someone a management failure, and that your goal is to improve company performance.  Tell him you can get the best from your people (you can, right, using the tools of effective managers?) and if their best isn't good enough, then you'll consider the next step.  

Nonetheless, make it clear that performance, not firing people, is your goal.  

Good luck, and a hat tip for handling a tough situation.   

John Hack