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Some background:
I work as a Software Manager in Singapore. We accept & develop software projects for client in a team. My project team and I have been working on a project for around 9 months now.

The problem:
Last week, one of my project teammate (Engineer A) started to have a change in personality and avoids the team. He doesn't join us for lunch nor talk to us much, including things he should talk to us about regarding the projects (Such as software bugs). Initially, we all believe that he is trying to be more productive, but the engineer that sit diagonally behind him (Engineer B, which allow him to see Engineer A's screen) commented that he has been staring at empty pages for a long period of time without doing anything. His commit counts also drastically dropped. Being concerned, we approached him several time and asked if everything is all right as this is affecting his work performance. He said he is fine initially and we took it at face value. This then continued since with no signs of improvement.

More details:
On the time he actually talked to me, he requested for me to take a look at his code because there was some conflict. Turns out, the bug is from using uninitialized variables and simple programming issues. One of the other engineer have also asked him if he is fine personally, but he seems incredibly hostile with his replies like "I am fine. Should there be things you should be fixing now? Can you please go back." He previously has been a responsible, friendly and good performer before this. What are some advised actions I can take to resolve this?

UPDATE 1: The project manager is aware of this problem and asked the team some feedback. The team agreed to try and assist him. Will greatly appreciate further advice.

UPDATE 2: We have given him 3 days off to fix his issue. If the issue isn't fixed in 2 days, we will have to let him go to not compromise the project.

UPDATE 3: We let him go in the end because he is not willing to fix his problem.

  • Opinion based - some people will say "he might be having personal issues - help him." Others will say "he might be having personal issues that are affecting the business - fire him". – solarflare Jun 20 '18 at 4:09
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    @solarflare I do not think that the problem:solution is opinion-based at this point since OP has approached the employee in question (Engineer A) "several times" – Sandra K Jun 20 '18 at 4:45
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You've already tried getting him to tell you what is wrong, but he doesn't seem to want to share. You can tell he's lying about "everything being fine" because his production is dropping and his mood is terrible.

At this point, you'll probably have to confront him with the consequences of this behavior. Take him aside for a 1-on-1 and tell him that his work quality is below par, that you can tell something is wrong, and that if he is unwilling to talk about what is going on, or otherwise find help to get back to productive levels, that he'll have to be let go from the company.

You can offer to help him with his issues, including sick leave or therapy or whatever, if you think it'll help and he's worth the investment, or you can ask him to fix his own issues and just offer him time to do it, but in the end he has to be willing to fix his own issues and get better.

We all feel bad from time to time, and it'll affect our performance, and we might need some help to get over whatever is eating us, but if someone's performance drops and they are unwilling to accept the help of their peers, there's only so much you can do within a company. At some point, the unwilling have to face the consequences of not being productive and refusing to talk about it.

  • Hello Erik, thanks for the great answer. Would you say giving him some more time before talking to him 1-1 would be better, or would taking answer ASAP be more recommended? – Zen Jun 20 '18 at 6:04
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    @Zen: I'm not Erik, but I'd say that there's no problem in addressing this ASAP, but I would avoid making the employee feel time pressure regarding fixing this (it can often exacerbate the issue rather than solve it). It seems like you've already given him some time, I see no need to give him even more without even addressing it. – Flater Jun 20 '18 at 7:04
  • @Zen I'm Erik and I agree with Flater :) – Erik Jun 20 '18 at 7:22
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I am not sure the approach I am going to suggest can fit the culture in Singapore, so take it with a grain of salt and apply your best judgment.

First of all, I think nobody feels comfortable talking about his own personal problem in the open or after a direct question when he is not feeling safe about opening up. So, asking him when he is sitting at his desk, with maybe other colleagues around, is just going to raise his defensive walls and hostile responses.

I have had colleagues who were going through stressing events as a divorce or a seriously ill relative, and they always prompted out the issue in a comfortable situation, never at the desk in a open office, and always when they felt ok with doing it.

You are his manager, so either set up a meeting with him, or use your next routine and sit in a room where you can be alone with him, with no (unwillingly) peeping eyes or listening ears around. Basically set up an environment where he can feel safe to open up.

Then expose the facts that you observe: praise his past work, outline the drop in his productivity and quality and whatever you have objectively observed, and how this is impacting the team. Then prompt that if is there anything going on that can be helped by you and the team or that at least you should be aware of, you are open to listen.

At this point there are 3 options for him:

  1. Open up there on the spot
  2. Open up after some time, once he has digested your opening
  3. Keep his lock shut
  • Hello L.Dutch, thanks for the great answer. I believe you might be right on him closing himself up, without a good environment to open up. Do you think the team should give him more time to sort himself out, or should we take action asap? – Zen Jun 20 '18 at 6:06
  • @Zen, I don't know. It depends on how much your team can still cope with an underperforming element. – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Jun 20 '18 at 6:15

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