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My coworker has been assigned a project for which he is completely unskilled. He is really smart and will eventually figure it out, but that could be inefficient and definitely mean the project goes over budget.

My manager told me in confidence that this will be the test project that results in his dismissal if/when he underperforms. He doesn't want my coworker to know, because he feels people need to be self-motivated and if they are not they will never perform well.

I disagree with my manager, people should clearly understand expectations and consequences of their performance.

I want to tell my coworker that he needs to do well on this project or he will lose his job. I think that this will light a fire under him to do well.

What is the best way to convey this to my coworker?

The project should take about two months to complete. I think if my coworker knows, he can put in the extra time and save his job by performing well.

Then hopefully he can get a new project matched to his skillset, or at least have another chance to demonstrate his value in full knowledge of the scrutiny he is under.

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    You might consider (1) rephrasing the title; and (2) breaking up the wall of text. You post is difficult to read. – user25792 Aug 16 '19 at 4:24
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    @mattumotu assign somebody to a project they're clearlly not skilled enough to navigate when the manager already knows it will result in a dismissal is the textbook definition of being set for failure. – Juliana Karasawa Souza Aug 16 '19 at 10:01
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    A random thought here. Are you sure that your manager is testing just your colleague? Could it be that he is also testing you by putting you in a difficult position by giving you this information (which may or may not be true)? – Peter M Aug 16 '19 at 13:06
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    @mattumotu I really don't believe in the whole "wants to improve" rhetoric. If you want people to improve, you give them a challenging assignment and the support resources to help them improve, and not just "light a fire" under them and prepare for them to fail. You communicate expectations clearly (OP's point) and give them room to deliver. As a manager, you should NEVER plan for a failure, you should plan contingencies, but never expect the project to fail as a "plan A". This is either textbook set to failure or textbook bad management – Juliana Karasawa Souza Aug 16 '19 at 13:24
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    OP has been put in a bad position for sure, I would express my disatisfaction with the situation to the manager. – mattumotu Aug 16 '19 at 13:52
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How to tell him is easy - whether you tell him or not, that’s the question.

Your manager is nasty in two ways: By telling you this, and by setting up your coworker for failure in the first place. In my opinion, the best outcome for the coworker is the find a good job elsewhere, so that’s what my answer is based off.

Take your coworker aside, and when nobody can listen in, you tell him that he is being set up and the manager wants to get rid of him. Working his ass off to succeed with this task won’t help him long term.

So his best strategy is to focus not on the impossible task, but on finding a better position. Tell the boss about making good progress all the time, then when he gets a goof offer, take that notice and give the shortest notice possible. If he is asked why he leaves, he can say “the job here is not challenging enough”.

Make it clear that none of this should be told to the boss.

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    +1. If the manager wants him gone he'll be gone. If it looks like he's starting to succeed they'll throw more obstacles at him such as constantly changing the requirements or actively denying him the resources he may need. If he over comes those obstacles and succeeds anyways they'll find another bus to throw him under. – Lee Abraham Aug 16 '19 at 19:28
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Your boss doesn't want your coworker to know.

Unless the coworker is a friend of yours, in which case it becomes a question of ethics, you really have no reason to tell them.

If you are concerned that it isn't fair, you can probably suggest as much to your boss, but it is their decision.

If they are setting them up to fail, then really, they want to get rid of them. They obviously do not share your assessment that they are worth saving.

In addition, I agree with you that expectations and consequences should be clear, however it's known that underperformance can have an impact on your employment status. Management shouldn't need to light a fire under people to make sure they perform.

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    Underperforming isn’t always a symptom of poor employees...but in my experience a symptom of poor management. – morbo Aug 16 '19 at 7:37
  • @morbo That may be true, but it doesn't matter. If the colleague absolutely works his hardest now to cover for mis-management, it's just delaying the inevitable if they want to get rid of them. – Gregory Currie Aug 16 '19 at 10:11
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I am sorry that you have been put in this position as it sounds very dificult.

Your boss is in the wrong for telling you this and putting you in this position. You would be putting yourself at risk if you tell your coworker and your boss finds out. How do you even know it is not a test of you to see if you can keep a company confidence?

If your boss has decided that your coworker is at risk then it could turn out that even performing on this project isn't enough or the next project will be a test case to see if your coworker still performs and ongoing forever. Sometimes if a manager decides that someone is a wrong fit, then changing their mind will never happen.

I know you want to help your coworker, but if it were me, apart from helping them where normal for my role, I would try to forget what I have heard and allow the situation to play through as if I hadn't heard

I would also think about what this says about your manager that he would tell a coworker this about someone else. It's not good

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    It may be the manager is testing the OP as well... Finding out where the leaks are... – Solar Mike Aug 16 '19 at 8:49
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You should tell your coworker about this if you are sure that his manager is acting in a malicious manner or is acting in manner deliberately to your coworkers detriment.

Refusing to give information to a person which will drastically effect their life is unethical, and slimy if you do it out of self interest.

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