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I manage a team of software developers. I have an employee who is unusually antisocial. It's not just that he's quiet, he won't even nod to you if you pass him in the hall. On the other hand, he is extremely productive. He's been with us for a few years and it's not an exaggeration to say that he does the work of three average developers. We DO NOT WANT to lose him. For the past few weeks he's been unusually snippy with people and seems unhappy. I need to determine if he's distressed about something at work or if there's something outside that has nothing to do with the company.

Changing his quiet behavior is not an option. He is what he is. He would not be pleased if I asked him if he's upset about something wrong outside of work. In fact, he won't be pleased with me talking with him at all, but it has to be done.

Most people are money driven, but I have no reason to believe he's unhappy with his salary. He's well (but not spectacularly) compensated, and due for another review in a few months.

I'm looking for a script I can use to determine if he's ok with his work, and if not, if there's something we can do to change that. A script that doesn't seem too prying. He will not be forthcoming, but I need to push it and determine if there's something we can do to change the situation.

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    @Owain As someone who's fairly quiet, I'd be much more inclined to open up in person than over email. – Dukeling Jun 8 at 18:52
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    How responsive and engaging is he in conversations (specifically one-on-one conversations, and ideally more social less work-related ones)? Does he respond with the bare minimum for every single question or does he occasionally give more detailed responses and sometimes ask (optional) questions in return? Him not nodding to you in the hall doesn't say that much about how quiet he is (some people are just uncomfortable with that specific form of engagement). – Dukeling Jun 8 at 19:12
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    What makes you say "he would not be pleased if I asked him if he's upset"? Is this an assumption just based on him being quiet or do you have a more specific reason to believe this? – Dukeling Jun 8 at 19:14
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    @JoeStrazzere I assume that the OP isn't going to read from a script but wants to plan the conversation ahead of time because they think there is a high chance of getting it wrong. – P. Hopkinson Jun 9 at 11:11
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    OT: antisocial means they want society to go away/be destroyed, ie. psychopathy. The proper term for introverted people is asocial – Juha Untinen Jun 9 at 19:46
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Non-expert opinion:

Be direct about wanting to keep him and your willingness to be supportive. Don't address the worrying behaviour directly.

This allows you to communicate the information quickly, clearly, and with minimum fuss.

Something like...

"Hi, I've brought you in for a quick one on one because we haven't had chance to catch up recently.

I am (or: we are) really pleased with your work at the moment. Your work on [project x] is particularly good. Things are going well from my perspective but I'm keen to hear your perspective to make sure we are looking after you at work. Is there anything that I can do to help support you?"

[employee most likely gives no useful response, says that everything is fine]

"Ok, that's good to hear. Have a think about it and if you do think of anything please let me know and we'll try to get it sorted out for you."

The idea is to make it clear that they are a valued employee and that you are approachable if and when they have a problem. You might be able to achieve more by tackling the problem head on but it would be a much trickier conversation to handle.

  • If the productive employee was upset with a recent change his manager made (ie. he was upset at his manager), his manager might not be the best person to have that conversation with. If there were multiple levels of management maybe the second line manager might be able to glean more insight? – neubert Jun 9 at 13:45
3

You're probably correct that he doesn't want to talk about whatever it is. But that doesn't mean you can't still broach the topic. Just be careful not to pry, and be as supportive as you can be.

  • Thank him for his stellar work.
  • Tell him that you noticed a recent change in his behaviour. (He probably realizes people will notice.)
  • Ask him if everything's okay. (He'll probably say yes, even if it isn't true.)
  • Don't press him for details, and do tell him that it's up to him to talk about it whenever he wants to.

Then offer him time off to deal with whatever it is, working from home, or shorter work hours. Whatever he needs. Don't just thank him verbally for his efforts, but show your appreciation by being supportive. (If it's at all in your power, try to convince your boss to allow your most valuable employee a temporary reduction in work time without any pay cut or increased workload at a later point. If you can manage to keep him, it'll pay off in the long run.)

Disclaimer: I recently experienced the situation from the other perspective, where I was the valuable employee and needed a temporary reduction in work time. It's not at all the same as I was entirely open about the reasons, but having my manager sign that off without the topic of a pay cut even entering the conversation sure did make me feel appreciated.

2

Is there actually a problem for your company? He is "snippy" and "seems unhappy", but is that actually a problem? People are unhappy sometimes. He might be snippy and unhappy because his cat died. There is no indication that he is unhappy with his work.

If he has a problem that is in no way work related, and you try to find out what is going on, you might actually be creating a work related problem. At least give it some time. I would recommend that your best plan for action would be to do nothing.

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    If it is work related, and they do not address it and do nothing to improve the situation, the employee may move to another company. – さりげない告白 Jun 10 at 4:41
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    If it is not work related and the do something because SOMETHING MUST BE DONE, the employee may also move to a different company because the are pissed if by an interfering boss. And if it’s work related, they can leave anyway. – gnasher729 Jun 10 at 6:56
  • Also if it's not work related, the guy might still move. You know, because he's fed up with the traffic jams, or he wants to relocate to Stratford. – Wilson Jun 10 at 15:29
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"Do you feel too much is being expected from you? I really don't know you, but it seems to me your productivity is off the charts. So I'm actually concerned, really just guessing for the moment, that it will be very tough, and even unnecessary, to keep up that pace for the long term.

So if this, or something else, is becoming an issue for you I want to make it very clear, and very safe, that you have as much opportunity, perhaps even personal obligation, to have it discussed.

I'd frankly rather have happy employees that feel they have a long-term home than employees who equate production with success at the cost of their health."

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    hi. Could you provide reasons this script is going to achieve what OP wants? right now it lacks context – aaaaaa Jun 9 at 0:02
  • @aaaaaa Sure. The way to find out what an unsocial person is to ask them. But since the person is unsocial you have to assume they have a fear ... so you have to give them them permission to behave in a way that may be helpful to both. The person is afraid of being fired ... of doing something wrong ... why does one person do the work of three, for fun? – Randy Zeitman Jun 9 at 1:08
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    @RandyZeitman Some people can do 3 times the work others can do in the same amount of time. I don't see anything else in the question to suggest they're working any longer or harder than anyone else (although that may be something to ask for clarification about). Also, this speech is assuming this is about them working too hard and mostly running with that, without asking any input from them, instead of having an open-minded discussion about what the actual problem is. I'm just me, but that approach would make me fairly uncomfortable and not receptive whether they're right or not. – Dukeling Jun 9 at 22:03
  • @Dukeling You seem to be saying the opposite of what I wrote. I'm very blunting stating we do not know if you're working too hard. (And yes, a person doing three times more would be working harder ... what else could it mean.) – Randy Zeitman Jun 10 at 0:29
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    @RandyZeitman I should explain, it's not that he works 3x the hours. In fact he works fewer hours than most devs. He's just smart, VERY focused and fast. – mhenry1384 Jun 10 at 1:23

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