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I've recently been placed in charge of a software engineer who is considered a "problem" employee for a couple of reasons. The employee is not a capable people person. I believe he has a minor case of autism / Asperger's / something along those lines. You can have a conversation with him, but you can tell he isn't super comfortable, and it is difficult for him to collaborate on team projects.

On the other hand, he is a "10x" developer in the absolute best sense of the term. He works 10-12 hours a day, and while I've only recently begun managing him, I am given to understand that he produces not only a stupendous volume of code, but also that his work is thoroughly documented and well tested such that it can be handed off to other people very easily.

Finally, the guy has deep seated, problematic viewpoints. He isn't racist in an explicit way where he express dislike for certain groups, but he not infrequently says disparaging things like "I don't think it's a good idea to have someone of (whatever minority / gender / etc) do that". He is very matter-of-fact about it: again there isn't anything that you would describe as malice. He just views these things as facts and (I think) isn't socially capable enough to understand that, regardless of what he thinks, there are some things he should not say.

Due to his usefulness, and his general lack of interest in talking to people anyways, the solution has historically been to try to isolate him from people he is likely to offend, and just let him keep doing his own thing. However, I've recently had an incident where something offensive made its way into code documentation and got to someone who was upset enough by it that they felt it needed to be brought to my attention. This person was understanding: they knew that he didn't mean to harm, and that he didn't quite understand the emotional effects of his opinions, but they (rightly) expressed that it wasn't fair / acceptable / etc to have things like that in the code base, and to force them and others to deal with it.

I haven't got a ton of experience with dealing with people like this, and am kind of at a loss. My boss tells me we aren't considering firing him. In the meantime I've been going through his past code and any code he submits: things like this pop up very rarely, but I've found a couple others from past code (nothing since the incident, when I talked to him). I've discussed it with him, and he seemed to understand, but I can't imagine that no one else has had this sort of discussion with him before, and so I think repeated incidents aren't out of the question.

It's also worth pointing out that there are two important dimensions that need solving. First and most importantly, I need to make sure he isn't hurting anyone. But secondly, as long as he is my direct report, it is my job to help him progress personally and professionally. Therefore I also really want to try to help him change, or at the very least, learn to stop talking about these views. If he didn't have this problem, he would just be "the best software engineer I've ever seen" instead of "that weird racist code jockey," and since I'm stuck managing him I really would like to help him become the former.

As a side note: I know I sound a little more sympathetic to the guy than I typically am when dealing with views like his. Please understand that I am completely not ok with his viewpoints, and find them totally vile. That doesn't make me not have to manage him, and given that I want to find the best solution I can.

12 Answers 12

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If you're dealing with someone that has problems with social interaction and social cues, one thing to do is ask yourself:

  • Do they comply with instructions?

The reason I ask that is because... well, some people are just jerks. It's not that they can't understand interpersonal aspects - they simply don't care.

However, from the sounds of it, your coworker does (I'll call them Tim from here out, since I don't think you gave a name.) After all, there was nothing bad in code comments after you had a talk with Tim. From what I can tell, your guess about Autism is likely spot on.

So here's my advice: have a series of talks with them, but from a slightly different perspective than you might be used to: one that completely direct and does not focus on an appeal to societal norms or people's feelings. Such as:

  • "Tim, I heard what you said about [minority] not being [something]. Please do not make any comments about race here in the office."

Now, I know what you said:

... but I can't imagine no one else has had this discussion with him before, and so I think repeat incidents aren't out of the question.

Why is that so hard to believe? You probably weren't eager to have that conversation with him, and found it incredibly awkward. So has everyone else. Plus, it'd be really easy for people to handle it the wrong way and take the tack: "you're hurting that person's feelings when you say XYZ." At that point, you're talking to someone who doesn't understand why someone would be offended by XYZ - and you're trying to appeal to their empathy on the subject. They don't have empathy on the subject - because they don't understand why it could offend someone!

In short: be direct, be blunt, and simply give directives when it comes to stuff like this.

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    @annprivate It is okay to tell an employee that comments about race, religion,... are not appropriate in the office. You're not asking him to change his opinions (that's not your place indeed), but to behave professionally and respectful in the workplace and towards his colleague. – MlleMei Jul 12 at 6:56
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    Yes! my cousin who is on the spectrum has said some quite offensive/rude things to people simply because he didn't know what he said would offend someone. after its explained to him or he realises everyone is giving him the WTF look, he apolgises profusely. "Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity" – Woodie 2714 Jul 12 at 9:55
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    @Woodie2714 or in this case, mental issues, not stupidity – Pyritie Jul 12 at 12:16
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    @annprivate - There was an answer to a similar question where the answerer, who said he's diagnosed on the spectrum, said this approach as indeed the one to take. Say clearly what he shouldn't be doing, without appeal to people's emotions or right/wrong or similar. Just the facts. If that answerer and your "Tim" are neurosimilar to each other (it's a spectrum, and different people are always different regardless), it may work with Tim too. Good luck, and well done with your handling here (says some random stranger :-) but still ). – T.J. Crowder Jul 12 at 12:55
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    @annprivate Based on your description of Tim, I'd say the most important part of this answer is to make sure you address him with a tone that matches his. You mention that he speaks in a matter-of-fact manner and isn't subtle. Use that same pattern when talking to him. Be direct and factual. "You can't do X any more in the workplace." – dwizum Jul 12 at 13:25
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You are discriminating against your employee because you think he is autistic (you don't mention that he has been diagnosed with any documented disability, so this just your armchair diagnosis to begin with).

As an autist and a manager myself, you have to treat your autistic employee the same as your neurotypical employees. Instead, you appear to be giving him somewhat different work responsibilities because you think he is autistic:

  • You have isolated him from coworkers.

    • He cannot talk to them or share his knowledge with them. He is missing out on essential parts of team building and cohesion.

    • He may be "uncomfortable" having conversations, I was the same and still am to an extent, but everyone has to do things they're uncomfortable with every day as adults. By trying to protect him from things he finds "uncomfortable", you are hindering his professional development.

    • If he really is prejudiced, isolating him from those who are different from him is a surefire way to increase his prejudices. Allow him to interact normally with his coworkers so he can see that the people he may be prejudiced against are just ordinary people.

  • You seem to have assumed that there is some inherent connection between being autistic and being prejudiced.

    • One thing we generally struggle with is understanding why we should follow social norms. "Do not offend people" is not a good enough reason. But his issue of making prejudiced comments in code is not a social norm violation, it's a violation of any programming norm I've ever seen. So this is a different issue he has that's not related to autism.

    • Treat it as you would any employee making personal comments in code. They do not belong there.

I'll edit as I think of more.

Bottom line is:

  1. Don't limit his work responsibilities because you think he is autistic.

  2. Don't handle him with kid gloves or coddle him because you think he is autistic.

Do not treat him differently because you think he is autistic. If you do, you are discriminating against him.

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    All people should be treated differently. Individuals respond differently to different approaches, have different skillsets, etc. Conflating legal discrimination and prejudice with that is quite unhelpful. It's more than possible to give one person different responsibilities than another without hindering their professional development -- in fact, it may be necessary for it. I agree with not assuming, judging, isolating, or coddling, just not with treating everyone identically or giving them identical responsibilities. – Matthew Read Jul 12 at 16:53
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    @MatthewRead If responsibilities differ, people should be assigned to different job roles. People with the same job role have the same job responsibilities and skillsets. – Max A. Jul 12 at 17:09
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    Sorry, this is really bad advice. While I may agree philosophically, refusing to provide "reasonable accommodations" - and the bottom line things you said not to do are certainly reasonable - can land the OP in a world of trouble. – Michael J. Jul 12 at 17:23
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    Whether or not he is autistic is somewhat secondary though, it's just context. The situation is that they seem to have severe interpersonal deficits which would normally be solved by dismissal, but is productive enough that that's not an option. So, handling him with kid gloves and quarantining him is actually a very reasonable solution. – John K Jul 12 at 17:42
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    Reasonable accommodations need only be provided for diagnosed, documented disabilities. Autism is not a disability - The ODEC and ADA seem to disagree with you on this, to the extent that the Department of Labor literally labels Autism as a disability, and provides guidelines for allowing accommodations per the ADA: dol.gov/odep/topics/Autism.htm – dwizum Jul 12 at 18:23
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This depends on what your exact goal is. Because from this situation arise several goals, some of which conflict or interact with each other. Do you want

  • to minimize rocking the boat and resolve this as quickly and quietly as possible
  • to help the engineer in question not make similar missteps in the future and educate him about not sabotaging himself professionally
  • to enforce and make abundantly clear that racism is not supported or tolerated in your company, including making that clear to those that complained

To determine what you need to do about this, you have to first evaluate for yourself which goals you pursue and with which priority. Because based on that your response will have to change.

Avoiding to rock the boat

If you want to avoid rocking the boat and disrupting the state of affairs that currently exists (be it because you don't want your employee to produce less, or because upper management favors this outcome, or for another reason), confronting the employee directly is unlikely to achieve a favorable outcome. If he does not see anything wrong with his views (a reasonable assumption in this context), then confronting him about it or directly telling him that his conduct is problematic is an unwise approach.

People who are entrenched in their beliefs often react very negatively towards being called out for them, and some of those people react angrily or passive-aggressively.

The solution I can see working best in service of this goal would be something like what you proposed, to create a technical and equally applied barrier for the problem conduct, and then enforce it on everyone.

Personal improvement for the employee

If you want to help the employee in his personal development, and want to caution him against making similar remarks in the future, you have to asess how he would react to different approaches. This is honestly not something anyone but you can do, and it depends on your skills of reading people. You'll definitely have to address the problem behavior with him directly, but different people react differently to being approached, so you need to find the angle that works best for him.

Changing his fundamentally held beliefs is probably not going to work, as change in those usually has to come from within and has to be a product of introspection to actually take effect, so the best you can likely hope for is imparting upon him to keep his views to himself at all times.

Making it clear that racism and racists aren't tolerated at your company

If this is the goal then you need to have another talk with your boss. Even if firing him directly isn't on the table right now, he should recieve a final (and public) warning combined with some sensitivity training or similar exercises. This approach will not help him change his beliefs, and is highly likely to permanently sour your relationship with him, as well as any relationship with the complaining coworkers, and you need to be aware of that when choosing this approach, as it conflicts with all other goals listed directly.

It's vital and imperative that if you choose to go this route that you nip any sort of resistance in the bud. If you don't fire and take a strong stance, you then need to back up that strong stance by reacting harshly to any continued misconduct or percieved retaliation against the coworkers who complained. Your manager needs to back you up on this and your threats need to have teeth for them to be effective.

Ultimately it's up to you to determine your combination of goals and how to implement them, I can't anticipate your needs in that instance.

I deliberately left my own personal moral views out of this analysis (I'm leaning towards taking a hardline approach) because your question does not call for a moral analysis.

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    The sensitivity training may actually be quite helpful. It's entirely possible that people have just... never explained to him that stating those things is a bad thing to do for practical reasons that he can understand, as opposed to just because it hurts someone, which maybe he can't. – Nic Hartley Jul 12 at 14:37
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    @NicHartleya sensitivity training could be a good thing but only when given by a professional who specializes in autists. A lot of the psychological stuff which works for "normal" people just doesn't for autists. – Pieter B Jul 12 at 14:54
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In the following I assume that you want to help him to improve.

  1. Say this explicitly in terms like "Your code is fine but there are things that are unacceptable to others that we need to do something about together as your work is important to us."

  2. Peer review all his deliveries. Modern version control tools make this easy.

Make it absolutely clear that peer review failure is similar to a compiler error, and should be treated as such. During peer review handle each issue coming up with delicacy but persistence ("This is unacceptable because of... Please fix your delivery")

  • "there are things that are unacceptable to others that we need to do something about together" is too much of a euphemism, the OP needs to be blunt and tell him that this is extremely offensive and must stop. – Dave Gremlin Jul 12 at 14:26
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    @DaveGremlin In that case you may not be perceived as constructive and helpful but rather offensive. Please remember you need to see it though the eyes of the recipient. – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 12 at 14:58
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    @Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen - Telling a racist, to stop being racist isn't offensive and shouldn't be done tenatively or with kid gloves – Dave Gremlin Jul 13 at 13:32
  • @DaveGremlin it is offensive... To the racist – Max A. Jul 13 at 14:34
  • @DaveGremlin Do you have experience with people on the autism spectrum? And that some things must be carefully taught? – Thorbjørn Ravn Andersen Jul 13 at 14:45
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Talk to a psychologist.

A psychologist, someone who studies and understands autism and similar traits a lot better than you (and we here at workplace) do, can help you understand this person better. It is perfectly normal to go to a psychologist to better understand a particular individual and how to deal with them (and in many cases how to reduce the negative effect they have on you). In this case this person isn't negatively affecting you in particular, but they're negatively affecting someone, so you can learn how to reduce that impact as well (which should be useful for the possibly very long time that it can take to get this person adjusted to society's norms)

Keep in mind that if you assume this person's mind doesn't work like yours or the rest of the people's at the office (if it did, this person would see why their comments are hurting others), then you can't assume they will respond to your advice/arguments/orders/etc like the rest of them do. You need a better understanding of their condition (if any) and their thought process.

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    I'd suggest doing some research on autism/Aspergers before going to the psychologist simply to save time on the basics, but getting a professional's opinion on this is a good idea. – computercarguy Jul 12 at 18:50
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    Yeah, some previous research is a very good idea. But keep in mind that we're not sure if this person has Aspergers or is autistic. That was the impression of OP, who is not a trained professional in that area and hasn't even stated to be well informed on the subject (hence your suggestion). OP shouldn't get fixated on Aspergers or autism, so research should be done keeping that in mind. – Blueriver Jul 12 at 19:00
  • Absolutely. After doing initial research, they may find this person isn't on the spectrum at all and is just a jerk. The may save time and money going to the psychologist, or they may still do it with a different goal in mind, like how to convince management to get rid of the person. Since the OP doesn't know, we don't know. – computercarguy Jul 12 at 19:04
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Once you crossed that line of being verbally there's no going back. It's hard to defend oneself on the topic after that. In any case, I simply point out the wrong things people do, for the most part.

Often, my own people would belittle me, sometimes at the most inappropriate times, as when it's just been shown or come to light as to otherwise. Mostly base on what they feel at that time. Actually calling me bobo (I actually did looked too upset, back in high school when I didn't do as well as I could've. Such as gaming the night an important exam rather than cramming on the vast things I didn't understand). So I would strike back.

It's also very different here in Vancouver Area. If you're NOT passively racist, you're different. Here, it's actually OK to be racist!!.. Just be coy about it... And, when you get coy, you don't even need to be smart or veil it too much. Why, say it the same way every single fcking time.

If you're not like them they'd think YOU WERE THE ONE RAISED IN AN ODD WAY, or live under a rock to not know the racial insults. "Somebody's gotta tell this guy these things! He's not being beaten down or insulted!", they'll say, when not getting the response they gleefully expect. I have let myself be affected by what you people say, dumbasses. Why the fck did you think I've given up on finishing University? Too much. I really shouldn't have let myself be affected.

Yeah, it's not like everywhere else you'll never be laughed at ("I'm a little girl") for believing in things (or used to. I've succumb even more to some bigotry). But, here it's vast majority of the people. TODO.

Now that the people here are being whipped, they are actually saying, "It's OK, Rainier, you can be racist, say whatever you want". Really. So maybe, I'm availing on that voucher?

I'd blame several of what I mentioned above as an import overseas. It really is astounding to see British & Hong Kong attitude in mix here. And, Hong Kong basically being China intoxicated by British means of colonial control. Makes one wonder how it is in the British Isles straight up.

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As someone with a child on the autistic spectrum, I have some experience with the subject. And I think I can recognise an autistic spectrum disorder, or autistic traits, in people.

My personal belief (so it's not supported by any kind of evidence) is that while an autistic spectrum disorder can be an explanation for certain behaviour, it cannot be an excuse to justify it.

The situation that you're in is that you have a very capable employee, that produces more than what you pay him for (and that's why nobody wants to take action, because, you know).

So the issue at hand is whether this person's views warrant any action from your side. And from what I'm reading, yes, there needs to be some sort of corrective behaviour. If he's indeed on the autistic spectrum (one giveaway is if he avoids eye contact), explaining things to him means that you have to be crystal-clear, and avoid any metaphors, similes, or any other kind of non-literal speech. This is actually remarkably difficult.

If he works 10 to 12 hour days, I'm sure he can spend some time on some therapy that helps him deal with the, let's say, bigotry. Suggesting seeing a psychologist might not go down well, so this will have to be handled delicately.

The way I see it, he's a good and hard-working employee, who needs some guidance in certain areas to improve his performance in the widest sense of the word (which means, not offending anybody).

But if he is not cooperative, you will have to take action to resolve the situation, and that may include disciplinary action or even dismissal.

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However, I've recently had an incident where something offensive made its way into code documentation

...

I've been going through his past code and any code he submits: things like this pop up very rarely, but I've found a couple others from past code

If your company use git for version control, you can set up some git hooks to:

  • prevent him from committing offensive keywords.
  • get notification every time he makes a commit.
  • and so on
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I would approach it like the risk management situation it is.

An employee, regardless of mental handi-capable status, can still put the company in financial risk should she make a statement that winds up in court and is interpreted as 'Hate Speech'.

Treat the situation like any other like situation ...even if it risks losing a very productive worker...all within HR guidance regarding the appropriate laws concerning the differing-ability.

Protect the company and all other workers who's jobs could be lost due to going out of business following litigation just as you protect the handi-capable persons rights to work LIKE ANY OTHER PERSON.

For details, speak with your HR folks for guidance and get buy-in from your supervisor.

  • Welcome to The Workplace! The topic is "Problematic employee that can't be fired." The question also contains this: "My boss tells me we aren't considering firing him." FWIW I did not down vote your answer. You didn't answer the question asked, but you raise a valid point (i.e. I thought your point is worth making). – J. Chris Compton Jul 12 at 17:28
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    How about helping the person? They are a person, after all. – Blueriver Jul 12 at 19:01
  • It doesn't even have to be interpreted as hate speech. It just has to be part of a hostile work environment. If the employee is really making comments verbally or in code that show hostility against people of certain races or sexes, someone can document that and take it to the EEOC. It doesn't have to rise to the level of hate speech to get the company in legal trouble. – Max A. Jul 13 at 15:02
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So far it sounds like you believe he is a racist autistic person. You had several people make complaints and you defended him by saying he didn't meant it and probably brought up he is autistic.

I would cease this immediately. This opens the door to a major lawsuit: you isolate him, tell people he's autistic, and that management is thinking about firing him.

I would instead tell him directly, which I haven't read yet, that his racist comments are unacceptable and will not be tolerated. If he can't understand that, simply don't give him any work until he does.

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The best solution is don't change anything.

the solution has historically been to try to isolate him from people he is likely to offend, and just let him keep doing his own thing

He's producing high quality work. He isn't causing problems to the company (as long as you keep him apart from those he has an issue with) and you said he doesn't put anything in code comments that could be problematic anymore.

Are you trying to create a problem that doesn't exist simply because you disagree with his personal opinions?

I would think very carefully about that. Your job isn't to create a harmonious Disneyland where everyone holds hands and sings "we are the world". He's a top notch engineer and often people like that have quirks. Let him do his job and you do yours which will be to brag about how much work is getting done (thanks to him).

Alternatively:

Cause a big fuss, take him to HR, upset the workplace dynamics and this employee, risk having him leave and then be left with explaining why the work is falling behind. But at least people aren't being "offended" anymore. Do you think the company stakeholders would care about peoples feelings more or the bottomline?

  • This is fair. Obviously I disagree with his viewpoint, but its also not totally true that there aren't already problems. Obviously someone came to me and complained, and I've been made his manager because the last person who was doing it felt uncomfortable continuing to do so. – ann private Jul 12 at 4:09
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    It does sound like they need a tiny bit of training about what is appropriate to appear in code comments. Beyond that, it sounds like things are fine. I would let them know that comments like that can cause problems in the future, so it would be best if they could do what they can to avoid writing them. – Gregory Currie Jul 12 at 4:22
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    Being racist isn't just a "personal opinion", and neither being a coding genius nor being on the autism spectrum is a valid excuse for racism. Any employer and manager who tolerates someone like that in their work force, indirectly approve of their employee's racism and support it. – Niko1978 Jul 12 at 7:02
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    @Niko1978 No, they don't "indirectly approve of racism" specifically. Generally they seem to provide a workplace tolerant to a difference of views. – Gnudiff Jul 12 at 15:50
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    @Niko1978 Saying "judging people as incapable based upon gender or other minority status is just expressing different views, and we tolerate that" is not indirectly approving of racism. It's directly approving of racism. – Beofett Jul 12 at 18:44
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I've found a couple others [insults] from past code (nothing since the incident, when I talked to him).

You had a problem and already fixed it. For the meantime, you don't have to do anything.

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    This is like saying that a drunk driver hasn't driven drunk recently. Just because a problem doesn't happen every day doesn't mean it isn't a problem. – DaveG Jul 12 at 14:10

protected by Monica Cellio Jul 14 at 18:16

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