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As a manager I believe it is my duty to coach my direct reports so that they can succeed in their career. Sometimes that is not possible in their current position.

I have a direct report whose career would be better served elsewhere. There just isn't an advancement path here for him; and one won't open up for two or more years. He knows this and complains about it enough that he has become somewhat toxic to the team and the company. (Toxic enough that he could be terminated some day.)

Moving to a new company would be good for him. I admit: it would be good for me and our employer too.

If we were a larger company and he could succeed better on another team, I'd have no problem coaching him towards moving to that other team. However, we are a small company without a large selection of teams to move to. His only option is out and he doesn't realize it.

I think his career goals would be best met elsewhere.

Can I tell him this (is it legal)? Should I tell him this (is it ethical)? How could I tell him (e.g. hint, be direct, ask someone else to hint to him)?

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    why do you think it would illegal ? Commented Oct 21, 2017 at 19:54
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    If telling a direct report "you're fired" is legal and ethical, I don't see why "start looking for a new job" should be a problem.
    – Masked Man
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 9:50
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    Recommend to OP to omit any reference to "legality". That's a trigger word that shuts down discussion in this forum. The question is otherwise very interesting.
    – teego1967
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 18:34
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    @JoeStrazzere because some people see the "L-word" and go "ERMAGERD! SHUT IT DOWN!" without actually applying the site policy to the Q. (yes, I know it was a rhetorical question) :)
    – Chris E
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 23:38
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    Employment law varies considerably across the world. There is no point asking about it without stating which jurisdiction applies. Commented Oct 24, 2017 at 6:55

5 Answers 5

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Can I tell him this (is it legal)? Should I tell him this (is it ethical)? How could I tell him (hint, be direct, ask someone else to hint to him)?

Assuming you are in the US...

Yes, it's legal.

If you have an HR department, consider putting him on a formal Performance Improvement Plan (some HR departments require a PIP before someone can be dismissed). That will lay out the steps toward either improvement or (more likely) dismissal.

If you are too small to have an HR department, consider having a one-on-one talk about his performance and career within the company. No need to be cruel, but you owe it to your team to tell them when it simply isn't working out. Just be direct and emphasize that you can tell by his actions that it isn't working out for him either.

You could offer to help him find his next job by allowing him more flexible hours, use of a conference room for phone interviews, etc.

I've done this in the past. It was appreciated and ended up working out best for everyone. I was able to open up a slot on my team for a better-suited future hire. And the individual found a different role in a different company that was better suited.

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  • +1 @Joe Strazzere My instinct is to do what you described, but twice I have seen the opposite situation where the co-workers got very mad and start doing some damage to the company and the projects. They had such a grudge, like they were entitled to had position X instead of co-worker Y. So I am now on the fence if telling to find another job to a direct report is good and human or it will throw some oil on the current fire and you will have to terminate him anyway.
    – Tom Sawyer
    Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 17:54
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    @SebastienDErrico - the trick is in the delivery. If you manage to come across as someone who has their best interest at heart and is advising them (as a person rather than as their boss) to start looking for a position where they will be able to grow and progress their career that's quite different from a boss telling them to dust off their CV because they may be fired soon.
    – Cronax
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 8:53
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    I agree with the PIP. If there is something this employee is doing (or not doing) that could help salvage them then it's in everyone's interest to determine what that is and try to make it happen. If that is not possible, then the employee needs to be removed.
    – NotMe
    Commented Oct 23, 2017 at 14:31
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If his complaints are direct, then your response should be as well. Tell him that the companies doesn't have any positions opening up in the immediate future, and he needs to decide whether he's willing to live with that, or whether he wants to look elsewhere. That's not illegal, and since it would benefit you, him, and the company, I don't see anything unethical about it. You can also offer to give him a good reference, or other help that you can think of.

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This is what I would say (say, not write. Do not put anything like this down in writing. And do not say anything like this in front of others, but him).

Want a promotion? Do not tell anyone I told you to, but look for a job at a different company.

Want another promotion after that? Perhaps come back here two or three years from now.

Don't want a promotion? Stay here indefinitely.

Those are your options.

I will help you with whatever you decide but know this. When you're in, you're all the way in. When you're out, you're all the way out. There is no in between.

Either way, there is no more complaining. Keep that for your private diary at home. There is no mumbling under your breath either. There is no sarcasm. There is no badmouthing our company. There is no more negative attitude. And there is no saying to your coworkers that you're looking for another job (unless you want to be let go before actually securing yourself another job). Either you're in, or you're out, until you decide otherwise.

It's ultimately your choice, your responsibility. Do not blame anyone for your decisions, or your lack of decisions. But let me say this, you can count on me for a great recommendation letter and a great professional reference, but only if you do a great job while you're working for me.

If you're not completely in, even while looking for another job, do not count on a great recommendation/reference from me, only expect the very minimum required by law, and do not count on my assistance either. The same goes if you choose to remain here indefinitely, if you choose to do that, you must be all the way in too.

Of course, use only those words that make sense to you, and that you would say yourself. Whatever you say, it must sound natural. If you must memorize something, memorize the main points that you agree with, do not memorize the exact script.

And if you don't think he fully understands your message. Have him repeat it slowly back to you in his own words to make sure he gets it.

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  • I've had to give someone these three options, albeit with an employee who wasn't toxic, just well-fitted for a promotion that wasn't available. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 10:32
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It is very good of you to mentor and help your reports. But I would say that this should be mostly considered in issues internal to your company. There are a vast number of morally/legally grey areas if you start to mentor on things external to the company. This includes finding new employment.

If you have an HR department this is something that you should talk to them about. On top of legal moral and ethical considerations, you could find that it is something they would feel strongly about, for legal or other reasons. For example, the cost of a new hire to replace, if someone just leaves or is fired this is something the company accepts, but if you were to ask someone to leave you are responsible for the additional cost. It sounds like in this case it is OK, but should be cleared first.

I don't know much about the legal implications (so don't take this as advice) but in some jurisdictions talking in such ways could be considered dismissal. And you may end up having to pay redundancy or some other compensation. So it is certainly something you may want to get advice on.

Joe Strazzere's idea about getting HR involved to address his behavior is a good one. Toxic behavior in the workplace has no excuses.

The only other thing that is worth mentioning is how he does not realize that there will not be an opening for him for a number of years. This is perhaps something you can address directly. If he complains you can state as you do here that it is a small company with limited scope for advancement. He would have known this on joining, and the company can't change in a way which will accommodate his needs.

That way you are not directly telling him to leave but you are making very clear that the company can't provide what he wants. If he still stays and behaves toxically then that is simply an HR issue.

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You are the manager.You are the supreme leader it's great that you are thinking so deeply about your employees. My only suggestion would be to tell him that he's been a great employee but not able to fit in the box and that you think that he'll be better somewhere else.

Considering the term in your question

Is it legal to tell to a direct report that they should start job hunting?

No, you have the rights being a manager but you'll have to follow the terms like notice period which will depend on your company rules.

Edit: In response to why I advised to fire him.

If we were a larger company and he could succeed better on another team, I'd have no problem coaching him towards moving to that other team. However, we are a small company without a large selection of teams to move to. His only option is out and he doesn't realize it.

Considering that you have small company so every little resource is important for your company so it is better to find someone better for the position instead of training someone.

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  • He didn't say anything about firing the person. He says "it would be best for everyone involved if you spent some time looking for another job and putting your notice in once you found a good job".
    – gnasher729
    Commented Oct 21, 2017 at 22:27
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    I've edited @gnasher729 moreover is it legal suggest he's considering firing him. Commented Oct 22, 2017 at 5:34

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