I have a software engineer on my staff that has been very useful. He basically trains himself on new technologies on a weekly basis, and can memorize and apply the latest O'Reilly textbook over a weekend, and master the content within a month. He's been on board with our company (5000+ as of January) for a little over 4 years, and has done well with us (i.e. stocks, bonuses), puts in at least 15 hours overtime per week, etc.; and has received a promotion from intermediate engineer to senior engineer in his first year (mostly due to his hiring manager messing up and hiring him "too low").

He's had a lot of success these past 3 years, and is pushing (excessively) for a promotion to "engineering director", which is the next level up (2 levels beneath me). In his words, he's got the knowledge, drive, and mindset to make it to this level, and plans to "be a director before he's 33". While I wish that for him, the company doesn't promote people unless they've worked in a role for a least 3 years and can prove they're ready for the next level.

He's recently completed his annual review, and while he got a raise and encouragement that he's close to reaching the next level/promotion, he wasn't happy. He insisted on knowing every detail of how he's not yet ready for the next promotion, and insisted on having checkins each month to know if/when he's ready so he can be promoted early rather than having to wait another year "needlessly" to be promoted during annual reviews. I tried to encourage him to be patient, but he's insistent that "time spent in the current chair shouldn't be a factor", while management insists that it's important to "de-risk" a candidate.

We've had a serious problem with him this month: since a formal meeting where he's noted he's not happy being magically promoted on a whim, he's made a point of cutting overtime to nothing, focusing on his personal blog/LinkedIn to show off his knowledge, focusing on generic skills/abilities (at the expense of company-specific skills/technologies) and encouraging other engineers to do the same. This has caused a lot of disruptions in the company, and I'm receiving recommendations to encourage this employee to quit. How do I straighten out this formerly useful employee? He has accrued 2 years of severance in lieu of overtime (due to unique circumstances), and senior management (on principal) doesn't want to pay $700,000 to "fire" someone.

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    "the company doesn't promote people unless they've worked in a role for a least 3 years" & "... has received a promotion... in his first year" are mutually exclusive.
    – Based
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 11:35
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    Sorry if this is a dumb question, but just how much are you paying him that his overtime has added up to 700k over 4 years? 700k is about double of what I make in 4 years at my full-time software engineering job (but I don't get paid for overtime either).
    – Catsunami
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 15:23
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    What country is this actually taking place in? Two country tags make things rather confusing. Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 12:00
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    Overtime is _over_time. That means it's NOT mandatory. Why do you think it's mandatory?
    – user91988
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 19:42
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    Getting promoted because you work really hard in your spare time doesn't really count as "being magically promoted on a whim" to me
    – neptun
    Commented Aug 24, 2020 at 13:33

15 Answers 15


he's made a point of cutting OT to nothing, focusing on his personal blog/LinkedIn to show off his knowledge, focusing on generic skills/abilities (at the expense of company-specific skills/technologies) and encouraging other engineers to do the same.

So let me sum this up: you told your employee that the time he invests and the skills he brings do not advance him. The only thing to advance him in your company is more time of his rear end spent in a company's chair. Because that is what counts.

And you are surprised, that he promptly decided to focus on plain time spent in his chair, instead of his skills and time he invests?

It's exactly what you told him: "Do not expect to be promoted just for the hard work you do or the knowledge you have". Why would he do those things, that I guess are on his own dime and time? You have your rules. They have theirs.

If you expect overtime and learning in their free time, you should have written that into their working contract the last times you promoted them.

Doing (only) what is in your contract hardly constitutes a legal reason to fire someone (assuming you are in a country with labor laws where you need a reason).

Encouraging others to do what is in their contracts might not be what your company likes, but I have a feeling that it will also not be against the duties of an employee in your country.

The question you have to ask is: if they came from the outside, would you consider them for a director position? If so, your company policies basically force them to go look for opportunities outside, because you won't "hire" them based on where they come from. Maybe it's time for that to change. Maybe not. But you probably will lose this person to another company sooner or later. If you would not consider them for a director position if they applied from the outside, then you need to tell them why so they can improve. And it's probably something else than "3 years in the chair".

Right now you are between a rock and a hard place. Neither of you can give in and expect the other side to not remember that in future negotiations.

Maybe the easiest way is to have a talk with them and tell them that you would give them a glowing recommendation for a director job at another company, if they start working their "normal" OT schedule again. That should solve your 700K problem as far as I understood you. If they cannot find a director job outside your company with their current skillset, maybe they'll be more humble and find a compromise to stay at yours.

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    This guy is a precious gem. Too bad your company can't afford him. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 7:09
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    On top of this answer, I assume he is aware of his severance package....and all the rules he has to follow to get it. Make sure to inform him of that. Hopefully management will fire him for doing his exact job as described by his contract, lose 700k, lose him, and lose other employees once they realize all the extra work they do is pointless, and that their employment terms are not actually what both sides agree to, and the company is taking above and beyond advantage of the concept of, „work hard, advance“ Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 8:11
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    Not sure how I feel about the getting him back to "normal" OT schedule idea :| Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 9:24
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    @A.I.Breveleri Exactly. This situation is exactly how I fantasize a company would react if you really truly made yourself valuable. His decision to reduce overtime to zero is exactly the right decision because this company is literally threatened because this is the one person who is super loyal, knows what he's worth, and wants to be acknowledged and rewarded for it. The company is afraid of having someone who actually is as smart as the person they envision. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 14:05
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    True, you do not discipline overeager engineer, you motivate him! Especially that he is also highly competent, besides being overeager.
    – virolino
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 14:06

Do not discipline him. He'll walk, and the company will have lost a very valuable asset.

It seems to me the right answer here is for you to sit down with whoever you need to sit down with to get the rules bent in this case and to make it happen. You've got what sounds like a brilliant engineer, and you're trying to force them out of the company.

The real kicker for me here is the unique severance package: somebody was presumably prepared to bend the rules there, so we know it can be done if the company wants to bend the rules. But now you're saying the company isn't prepared to bend the rules in a different way, and when your engineer does his own version of sticking to the rules, you try and make it a disciplinary offense?

The other thing to remember is that there is a non-zero chance this guy will be pretty influential in your industry/geography in a few years. What do you want him to think of you and your company?

  • 86
    This employee of his does not sound over eager. Instead, he sounds qualified for a director position. Companies should be able to bend the rules for those who are worth bending the rules for. Under no circumstances should anyone with talent & skill ever be disciplined. In fact, the company should be disciplined for not recognizing the talent. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 16:37
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    That particular rule should be bent with every promotion. Can you imagine if the military acted that way? Sorry Ike, we can't promote you to SACEUR, we'll just delay D-Day until 1946 while you get the seat time. Stalin won't mind. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 20:00
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    "Under no circumstances should anyone with talent & skill ever be disciplined." (emphasis mine) Actually I think that's taking it a bit far...
    – user30748
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 22:48
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    @MarkEntingh What part sounds qualified for a director position? That's what I'm missing. Senior engineer != director. Senior engineer doesn't even equal lead or manager. From the OP all we know is that the engineer is talented at engineering and likes to study. The engineer could completely lack the social skills needed for management or being a director. If I recall correctly, Google specifically made a non-managerial engineer career path, presumably for this exact reason. Engineering director will be a totally different skill set than the normal engineer employs
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 4:11
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    @Mars I completely agree! I have seen many people get promoted way too fast to team lead (and that is so far from director) and they cannot manage anyone. Just because someone is a good engineer it doesn't mean they will be a good director, at all.
    – Catsunami
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 15:11

Referencing an answer I put in another question: Does having two jobs simultaneously count for twice the experience?

Your company assumes that you count each day as fully worked. You state that your employee put 15 hours a week of overtime. In four years, that's around 18 months of extra time. That could be counted toward his experience if your company valued such employees.

You punished him by stating that you ignored that year and a half. You state that the company doesn't care about real input in work about what is written on the contract paper.

You already straightened them out. You had an employee who bent (or broke) company rules to provide better results. Then the company forced him to follow the rules to the letter.

Your company's mistake was typical to any corporation. Take everything give nothing back. And sometimes that bites back.

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    "Classic malicious compliance." OP's company told him that his OT didn't count, so now he's not doing OT. I wonder who's fault that is... Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 15:05
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    @WGroleau No. He just went to corporation level. It's them who call him "millenial" and want to fire him because he stopped putting overtime and expressed his disappointment. He started playing by the rules that his company have written. Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 15:30
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    @WGroleau He put in an effort of 200%, went way above and beyond, and the company responded with "We don't care." So now he's putting in "only" 100%, so he's just an average Joe now. Suddenly company says "Whoa! Wait, we do care! We care in that we want you to put more money in our wallet, we just don't give a **** about you personally and don't want to reward you for your excellent behavior. Please stop being only as good as a normal employee. Keep giving us 200% as we've come to expect, or we'll give you the boot (and hopefully steal your severance money)." … which one is childish?
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 16:39
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    @WGroleau Who wouldn't, after getting a monumental stab in the back like this one? This employee never "cut back"; he was going way above and beyond what he should've done. Your perspective is objectively wrong here. Going "down" to 100% from ~200% is not "cutting back"; it's doing what his employer asked of him in the first place. If I were that employee, I wouldn't be happy at all and would certainly make the company pay back the $700K OP said he accrued with OT.
    – code_dredd
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 22:02
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    @Mars He's making everyone aware that they shouldn't put more than 100% because it will not be rewarded in any kind. That is proffesionalims. That way they will not only give 100% but also make time to check quality of their work. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 6:50

I don't see an overeager engineer, I see a disgruntled one.

In this answer, I addressed a similar problem, but one that had gotten worse

How can I deal with troublesome Professional Engineer?

You have taught your formerly eager engineer that effort doesn't matter. He's put in 700K worth of overtime which he has not taken, and you think the problem lies with HIM?

Of course he's putting in the minimum now; you've taught him that his hard work is rewarded only with words. If you discipline him, the very best case scenario is that he will walk, and I don't mean that that is good.

You have an employee who is, or was, so dedicated, that simply slowing his roll down to normal has a profound effect. Push him out the door, and you'll likely have a wrongful termination suit, followed by someone working for a competitor who has a fanatical drive to help them put you out of business.

Your company made a mistake, now it's time to correct it.

If you want to reign him in, find some way to give him a title that reflects his dedication.

"assistant director" or something like that.

He's hungry, don't ruin his appetite.

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    "If you discipline him, the very best case scenario is that he will walk, and I don't mean that that is good. Push him out the door, and you'll likely have a wrongful termination suit, followed by someone working for a competitor who has a fanatical drive to help them put you out of business." - Not only will the company open themselves up to a wrongful termination suit, they will also have to pay $700K severance to an employee, who will then likely transfer to their direct competition.
    – Donald
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 21:03
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    @Mars "senior management (on principal) doesn't want to pay $700,000". That money doesn't exist. The company has no intention of honoring their agreement to pay it. If the engineer manages to get it, it will be after a massive legal fight, and not as a reward given by the company.
    – Player One
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 12:29
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    While true that it is (potentially for) uncompensated OT, it is true that if the engineer walks he won't get it; therefor its also very very true that he won't walk. He's going to do the absolute bare minimum as dictated by his contract (which he will undoubtedly pay a lawyer a few hundred to review) in an attempt to get the company to fire him. Why? Because $700,000 that's why. The engineer has a financial incentive to sit in his chair and do nothing if it means he gets that money. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 14:04
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    @Mars exactly. And this guy is going to make sure they pay, one way or another. Beware of him that is slow to anger; for when it is long coming, it is the stronger when it comes, and the longer kept. Abused patience turns to fury. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 14:46
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    @Mars Far from a tantrum. Considering they essentially stole 2 years worth of work from him, I would call his actions remarkably restrained Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 15:52

The way to get rid of him is very simple: give him exactly what he asked for.

Find an "engineering director" position which is 100% management (preferably, the most unpleasant aspects of management that exist in your organization) and appoint him to it.

His much vaunted technical ability will then be of no use to him whatsoever.

And keep his nose firmly on the management grindstone by insisting on detailed weekly status reports when he fails to achieve impossible management objectives.

He won't be your problem for much longer.

  • 115
    Wonderfully openly evil answer to a closeted evil question. +1
    – Agent_L
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 13:40
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    Yes! And from the description, it seems as though this would be a textbook case of the Peter Principle en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Peter_principle So he becomes a manager, is really bad at it, gets fired, and discovers that he can no longer get engineering jobs because of his management experience :-)
    – jamesqf
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 17:32
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    The downside of this answer is that you loose the skills that are so valuable to the company....
    – Solar Mike
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:23
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    alephzero's answer is a Machiavellian tactic used in toxic workplaces. Don't use it. It'll corrupt and demoralize the organization at all levels. I've heard of a person who was offered such a poison-apple promotion. He smelt a rat and resigned. About the OP's employee, a person who turns so negative on not being promoted immediately, is definitely not someone who has the maturity to be promoted.
    – Nav
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 10:07
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    I see Catbert has joined the discussion.
    – Roy Tinker
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:22

It looks like your company has its reasons to not promote someone before they've spent a certain amount of time in a previous role, to minimize risk. The company is also not willing to bend those rules for this employee, because it prefers to risk losing a well-performing employee rather than risk having a potentially ill-prepared person take a management role.

Regardless of whether that is a wise policy or not, it seems to be policy, so you need to be straight with them and tell them that they cannot work around that. You seem to have done that and you have gotten the expected results: if they only need to let time pass, that's what they will do. This is the consequence of the policy of minimizing risk, and not the fault of the employee.

You cannot discipline them for doing what is expected of them in the contract. You cannot discipline them for advising their coworkers to do the same. If you expect more, state so in the contract and increase their compensation accordingly. The company can't have its cake and eat it too.

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    +1 A bad manager (in this case, one who is not seasoned enough) will ruin things faster than you can ever imagine.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 17:20
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    @RonJohn Agreed. However, OP sounds like the bad manager in this case.
    – Cloud
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 3:08
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    @RonJohn OP hasn't addressed whether or not this engineer's request to go over the individual sub-skills needed to earn the promotion (and areas that the engineer needs to work on). Also, OPs attitude seems bigoted, if not outright ageist. Regardless of which party is "in the right" on this topic, OP sounds like a poor manager.
    – Cloud
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 3:38
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    @RonJohn FWIW, this engineer does seem emotionally charged, and a potential risk. IMHO, OP seems even worse, and is a definite risk. In the case of the engineer, I can't really fault a young guy for wanting to have a ballistic career trajectory, especially if he can deliver.
    – Cloud
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 4:06
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    @RonJohn Well the OP does sound like a bad manager to me. Specifically the way they take over time as granted and then are surprised to find out - not a surprise to anyone else really - that the engineer is not doing OT any more, and then proceed to ask for ways to discipline this engineer. If this is not a bad manager to you, well...you have my condolences. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 9:19

A lot of people have already discussed the employee in question at length, and I don't feel that retreading that ground would provide you with much value at this point.

Instead, I would like to focus on everyone else; more importantly, this line in your question:

...I'm receiving recommendations to encourage this millennial to quit.

Two major things stand out to me about this statement:

  • The culture of your company is one that implies that there are norms of working overtime and putting in 110% at all waking hours of the day. Because the employee isn't fitting in with the corporate mold, others are wanting them to either conform or "quit".
  • There's a slight tinge of ageism on the sake of mentioning that they're a millennial. If they found out that this was the reason that they were being convinced to leave the company or dismissed, you could land yourself in very hot legal waters.

Your purpose as a leader should be to shield and unblock.

You have missed a key opportunity to shield your employee from the criticisms and stigma that your job has thrust upon him. If nothing else, I would start with the people who want them to quit, asking what about it makes them not want to work with them anymore. You should be prepared to defend your employee's work ethic, even if they cut back on overtime - which, if we recall, is 100% voluntary.

You should also look to unblock them and prescribe to them exactly what it is they need to advance. Sitting in a chair for X years isn't really a satisfactory answer, and you should be prepared to go into more detail. Clearly you have an employee who is looking to commit themselves to live up to the expectations you set, so you should totally set them.

  • 2
    "They" might be pushing him to quit because -- as you say -- of "ageism" (in this industry? LOL) or because he's not fitting into the corporate culture. OR it's because he's "focusing on his personal blog/LinkedIn to show off his knowledge, focusing on generic skills/abilities (at the expense of company-specific skills/technologies) and encouraging other engineers to do the same" which "has caused a lot of disruptions in the company". OP isn't handling things well, but the engineer in question really seems like a selfish prima donna who's threatening to take his ball and go home.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 3:28
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    I would argue that the correct way to shield an employee who's doing significant amounts of overtime is to send them home at a sensible time. Ultimately, working that much overtime is bad for your health; and if they're really that good of an employee, burning them out would be a bad thing.
    – UKMonkey
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 12:11
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    @RonJohn the engineer in question really seems like a selfish prima donna who's threatening to take his ball and go home It's his only right here : to work to rule (actually what management told him to do !) and if the so-called "prima donna" isn't happy with his employer they can do exactly that. I bet the prima donnas who manage the company would bail if their bonuses weren't paid. The engineer is an employee not a bloody slave. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 14:19
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    @StephenG "The engineer is an employee not a bloody slave" which is why they're paying him a lot of money, and keep promoting him.
    – RonJohn
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 14:43
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    @RonJohn The whole problem is that this question asks how not to promote him while also not paying him his OT severance. The engineer has actually shown they are a much better manager and negotiator than their managers are by getting a deal that puts them firmly in the driving seat. This engineer is already a good leader and negotiator and should be fast tracked, not held up by crooks. They'll be fast tracked somewhere else, that's for sure. Fire the managers who want rid of this guy, keep the engineer. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 14:48

It's interesting that you claim "overeager" because it implies that this person does not currently have the skillset to be successful in their desired role. My answer is based on accepting this implication at face value.

Question for you:

Do you want this person to become an engineering director?

If yes:

Excellent, you have a driven and highly motivated individual within your company who sounds like they want the company to succeed.

Get something in place for building this person up to become an excellent director. You wouldn't want someone who is severely technical and lacking in human skills to start directing humans, would you? Make sure that this training focuses on soft skills. Within the next year they should be ready to become a director.

FYI, their thirst won't stop. Get ready for their next promotion.

If no:

Your company is going to lose this person unless a significant pay/benfits bump will sate their thirst.

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    How much leadership is this person doing now? How big of a jump is it to engineering director? If it's a pretty big jump in responsibility then it may take longer than a year (e.g. if their senior title is senior in name only and they're not actually overseeing anyone or anything right now, then it could take another 5-10 years).
    – bob
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:47
  • @bob maybe my example is overly simplistic but I would assume that an honest evaluation happens after one year to let the person know whether or not they've developed their soft skills enough.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:51
  • Yeah that makes sense.
    – bob
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:57
  • @bob At least that's how things play out in a perfect world. Based on OP's post this engineer might be too far gone to even listen and accept an honest evaluation. The engineer might be ruthlessly thinking that once they complete a punch-list then they can get the promotion. It's possible that a punch-list can be created for soft skills but then you run the risk of the person not properly internalizing the experience.
    – MonkeyZeus
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 20:05
  • I like this. Also, the OP mentions having interviews regarding all of the engineer's inadequacies and progress, suggesting that the engineer does not, in fact, have the skillset that those in charge of hiring believe is needed.
    – Mars
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 10:55

Instead of working him out of the company, put him on a "fast track" or "talent programme" or some such. Give him a schedule of things that he must achieve - some of those will be raw qualifications (eg. sit the company's "new managers" training course), and others will be experiences like "come up with a training presentation and invite people to come" (to see how well he trains, and how many people come). Get him to mentor a junior team member, with the stated aim of having the junior person reach some level of attainment. Maybe see if someone senior outside of his normal world will mentor him (an hour or two once a quarter - so not a huge time investment for them!).

I guess the point here is to try develop this individual to the point that he could take on the new role. Along the way, evaluate his performance. Taking the presentation point, if his first presentation is boring and only has 8 people in it, then hopefully he'll take the initiative, solicit feedback and improve for the next one he does without you specifically asking him to do it. Likewise, with the mentoring, it's an opportunity for him to show how he'd deal with junior team members, perhaps people who he doesn't naturally get on with that well, etc etc.

I strongly suspect that he'll fail at a lot of these tasks because they're nothing like engineering. Failure isn't an excuse to fire him, but it is an opportunity for you to explain in clear terms how his performance isn't yet up to the new role (and what he needs to do to solve those problems). You may find that if he reflects honestly, that he'd prefer to be a senior engineer than a junior manager, or maybe he'll surprise you and be the best manager you ever saw. Either way, it'll be a positive experience for you and him, and will likely earn you and the company a great deal of respect for investing in people and managing skilfully.

  • Yes, train this engineer to be the manager he wants to be. Failing at specific tasks is only bad if you don't learn something from it. And yes, with this guy's track record of learning new material, he could definitely be a great manager, one that continues to help "over eager" engineers like himself, rather than just beating them into the same mold time and again, like the OP. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 16:51
  • "I strongly suspect that he'll fail at a lot of these tasks because they're nothing like engineering." Nice. I like it.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 18:46

Note: this answer assumes the employee only has 4 years of experience (based on the question wording) without much leadership experience yet.

Experience and technical chops / productivity aren't the same thing

The employee in question sounds a lot like me when I first started out, though I wasn't as much of a technical superstar, nor did I resort to insubordination when my fast-track promotion hopes were dashed. What I learned, and what most junior engineers learn the hard way as they gain experience and become senior engineers is that technical prowess and productivity cannot substitute for experience. It made no sense to me. I thought I was smart, was good at what I did, and had ambition and initiative; wasn't that enough? What I didn't learn for quite a few years was that experience provides you with many important soft skills that are pretty much impossible for most of us to acquire any other way:

  • Understanding of risk management: how to properly assess risk, when to take risks, and when to avoid risks;
  • How to deal with others: dealing with your peers, subordinates, and superiors;
  • How to manage a schedule: delivering on time, even if it means cutting corners (within company policies on quality; i.e. the iron triangle);
  • Understanding your company's organizational structure;
  • Understanding your company's own unique internal politics and policies;
  • Balancing theoretical correctness with project requirements: sometimes the "correct" design pattern isn't best for a project;
  • In general how to avoid common mistakes

Not only are these skills difficult if not impossible to acquire without experience and not at all the same as technical prowess or productivity, but hiring managers have to consider risk when making hiring and promotion decisions. It's risky to assume that someone without experience is ready for leadership. Based on the behavior described in the question, it seems like the employee in question has not mastered these soft skills--in any case they don't know how to deal with their superiors in a constructive way or how to demonstrate that they already have the soft skills necessary to lead (e.g. they could show how leadership activities on their own time demonstrate the skills needed for a leadership role in the workplace).

Leaders must have experience

Leaders must have a wide variety of soft skills beyond technical chops and productivity, and unless the candidate in question is a social savant, experience is how these skills are acquired. This is why minimum experience requirements are used, and why it's not a good idea to put a junior engineer in a leadership role or to promote too soon.

In addition, leaders need experience leading at the level of responsibility that their role requires. So 10 years of engineering experience as an individual contributor doesn't qualify someone to become CEO. It does however likely qualify them to become a team lead, and after a few years of success as a team lead, they could climb a level, and after a few years climb another, and eventually possibly reach the CEO level if they demonstrate success in leading increasingly large teams and impactful projects. There are always exceptions, but exceptions are inherently risky. This is why experience is so valuable and so important.

Deal with the insubordination immediately

It's understandable that your subordinate is upset, but you do need to deal with the insubordination right away. It's okay for the person in question to stop doing unpaid overtime (it's better actually; why let them burn themselves out?), but it is not at all okay for them to be undercutting you to the rest of your company. Why do I say this? Based on this section from the question, specifically the part that I've marked in bold:

We've had a serious problem with him this month: since a formal meeting where he's noted he's not happy being magically promoted on a whim, he's made a point of cutting overtime to nothing, focusing on his personal blog/LinkedIn to show off his knowledge, focusing on generic skills/abilities (at the expense of company-specific skills/technologies) and encouraging other engineers to do the same. This has caused a lot of disruptions in the company, and I'm receiving recommendations to encourage this millennial to quit. How do I straighten out this formerly useful employee? He has accrued 2 years of severance in lieu of overtime (due to unique circumstances), and senior management (on principal) doesn't want to pay $700,000 to "fire" someone.

It looks like the employee has done more than simply become disillusioned and stop volunteering their time, which would be totally understandable and 100% okay. The problem, and where it looks like it became insubordination, is when the employee started "encouraging other engineers to do the same" in a way that "has caused a lot of disruptions in the company" (a company of 5,000+ employees). While we don't have all the info, it sounds this this employee is making big waves in the company, which goes way beyond simply being disgruntled and likely crosses the line into insubordination. Honest, natural water-cooler conversations about problems in the company are normal and okay. Going around the company "spreading the word" to encourage disloyalty to the company is not okay (e.g. "the company doesn't care about you!" (probably true, but not good to go around saying); "polish up your resume like I'm doing--this place is a career-killer!"; etc.).

If this assessment is correct, it has to stop now or else the engineer in question needs to be let go. I would recommend a gradual escalation: start with a one-on-one with the engineer, and escalate from there only if needed. Talk to your higher-ups to find out the best process for your company to make sure you protect your company legally and follow all applicable laws. But bottom line, don't tolerate insubordination. It undermines your authority and can destroy your company.

Some people aren't comfortable with my use of the word "insubordination" here, and maybe they're right--I may be stretching the word to fit a non-standard definition. But regardless there seems to be a real problem related to loyalty and submission to authority. I'm seeing this not as overt insubordination--overtly disobeying an order, but rather as covert insubordination--obeying orders to the letter while working against their spirit by working actively against company interests. The latter is actually much more dangerous than the former, so in my view is a very dangerous form of insubordination.

NOTE: Of course if the company is in the wrong here and has built its business model around predatory treatment of employees by requiring frequent unpaid overtime, and the employee is doing everything right, but the example of one employee bucking the trend of killing themselves for the company is causing a ripple effect that's hurting the company's bottom line, then it's clear that this is not a case of insubordination, and the company should be dealt with, not the employee. Likewise if the company has crossed serious legal lines, the employee may be acting as a whistleblower of sorts, and could be in the clear ethically and morally. But based simply on the info in the question, none of these sound like they're the case.

Help the employee grow leadership skills

Assuming you resolve the insubordination without having to terminate the employee*, help them grow in their soft skills. Provide training in people skills and project management. Carefully explain to them the importance of soft skills in management. Monitor their progress, and when and only when they are ready, consider them for a promotion to leadership, but start small: don't launch them straight to director. Put them in charge of a small team over a low risk project or task first. See how they do. See whether they like it. See how others like working for them. This also gives them a chance to learn and make mistakes without those mistakes becoming career-limiting, and also keeps them from getting stuck in a high position if they're not suited for it but don't mess up enough to get fired or demoted. If they do well, consider moving them higher. If not then move them back down (if you can).

*NOTE: Only take these steps if you feel your employee was acting out of ignorance and has fully learned their lesson and repented, and thus can be trusted. If not, they probably shouldn't stay with the company, let alone be trained for management. The higher someone is in the company, the more power they have for harm. Don't give that power to someone who has undermined the company in the past and who you feel you can't trust not to do it in the future.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Commented Oct 4, 2019 at 21:12

I happen to think your three-year waiting period accomplished its purpose in this case. You need someone whose work ethic is sustainable, not someone who deflates at short-term setbacks. You wouldn't have discovered that about this person without the waiting period, until it was too late.

If this person had reacted differently by continuing on unabated, I would have gone to great lengths to bend the rules for him to get promoted earlier.

As far as disciplining, for someone this ambitious, failure to be promoted is discipline enough. He seems to be meeting his obligations despite some burn out. He might just need some time in order to find a sustainable leadership style, at which time you can reevaluate.


Based on the comments, perhaps I perceived the situation inaccurately, or explained myself poorly. It seems to me he was being rewarded for his effort by being put on track for a director position in a year. That is by no means an automatic or insignificant promotion. He also specifically cited his "drive" as a reason to be given special treatment, then seemingly lost his drive when asked for a little patience.

I don't think his actions necessarily disqualify him from a directorship in the normal timeline. His actions just disqualify him from the special treatment of an early promotion, so the company can see how the dust settles first.

  • 36
    Wait, what? He puts in literally thousands of unpaid overtime hours on a personal drive to succeed, to acclaim from his manager... only to find out that 'We're not going to promote you no matter how good you perform.' - not because of any weaknesses of specific areas the employee can address, but simply because of tenure. And when that understandably kills the employees motivation to put in thousands of unpaid overtime hours, your reaction is, "Haha, I knew your drive wasn't sustainable!"
    – Kevin
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 18:31
  • 4
    I understand this as I've been there (to a lesser degree) and it had a similar effect on me (though I didn't resort to insubordination). But I did my job and learned and grew, and now with 10 years under my belt I have already started leading small teams and am becoming ready to lead even more. So it turns out all that ambition and initiative that I had when I started out was misdirected. The same thing is happening here. And I'm guessing in a few years it will become clear whether the employee in question really is leadership material. But I agree with Karl, nothing has been lost here.
    – bob
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 19:39
  • 3
    This is where I'm getting insubordination from: " focusing on generic skills/abilities (at the expense of company-specific skills/technologies) and encouraging other engineers to do the same. This has caused a lot of disruptions in the company, and I'm receiving recommendations to encourage this millennial to quit"
    – bob
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 21:39
  • 3
    He seems to have become a troublemaker.
    – bob
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 21:40
  • 5
    Agreed. I've read the other answers and cannot believe that people think this guy is director material!
    – John3136
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 23:35

I hesitate to add my own answer here, not only because of the good existing answers, but also because of how very divided people seem to be on this topic. But here I go anyway.


Don't do any more than you already have. By not promoting this engineer, you've already basically bit the hand that's been feeding you hours, loyalty, trust, knowledge, and so much more. Remember that saying "once bitten, twice shy"? That's where he's at right now.

As someone in comments tried to say, the well is poisoned, but not by him. He has found out that company policy has offered poisoned water and is informing his compatriots. He does that out of loyalty to them, because he doesn't want them to go through the same thing he has.

Next Step

It may already be too late, but you need to quit watching his blog, LinkedIn profile, etc. and judging him about it. This is something most people do outside of work normally, but since he's been spending a significant amount of that time on work instead, he's just now doing normal things. Yes, he's probably doing this because he's ready to jump ship, which should be expected from what you've told us. Even if he doesn't quit, you're trying trying to force him out anyway, so why does it matter what he does outside of work?

Make changes

Businesses used to work on the rule of principle, rather than the rule of law. At some point, though, rules were made to cover where people were confused about a principle or because someone took advantage. Sometime after that, principle got overridden by rules altogether so that no one can do anything without permission, which is a shame in many situations. At various jobs and organizations, I've been "rules lawyer" overridden by people too afraid to do everything to get anything done, even when it's in the best interest of everyone.

The changes you need to make in your organization may not be simple or easy. Maybe you aren't even the one to accomplish the task, but they will help your business by helping your employees feel more satisfaction at work. They'll feel more like what they do matters, instead of it just being a paycheck.

One study found that happy employees are up to 20% more productive than unhappy employees. When it comes to salespeople, happiness has an even greater impact, raising sales by 37%. But the benefits don't end there.


Bring back principles as the overriding factor in decisions. One principle is to keep good workers and intelligent people in your business, so when a promotion is keeping them from being their best, do the right thing and promote them. Does it matter if they are missing some minor requirements or they just barely aren't hitting those same requirements? Yes, but that will be fixed in a shorter time frame than figuring out a way to fire them, finding someone else to replace them, and then training the replacement to the now fired employees current level, if that's even possible with the replacement.


Since this engineer has been putting in massive overtime and hasn't been burnt out yet, I'd say that he hasn't seen a significant amount of stress, because they enjoy the work and tries to work well because of "the principle of the matter". Now that the rules have come down on him, he's stressed and is likely to get burnt out really quickly.

"Working under rules is a source of stress. Working under principles is natural, and requires no effort."


Principles over Rules (aka: Rules are meant to be broken)

When you put principles back over rules, you allow your company to do more than just fill seats, provide a paycheck, and do whatever it is your company actually does. It provides a place where humans can be human, which is not fitting into someone else's box. Parents can come in late when the bus breaks down, people can come in and leave early to get to a doctors appointment, people can realize their time is actually appreciated, and, generally, people can quit trying to be robots/drones/zombies trying to make it to the weekend.

You may also notice that the "brown nosers" disappear after a while. When doing the minimum by following the rules doesn't get you an automatic promotion, along with just schmoozing the right people, but rather the hard work and intelligence put into the job gets the promotion, the office becomes more productive with fewer people trying to just "hob nob" their way around.

  • Stay optimistic: Rules are often phrased in pessimistic ways that make it seem like employees don't know how to behave professionally or as adults. Promoting principles in your office will motivate your team to work at their highest ability because they feel like you trust them and they have space to grow and learn.

  • Stay flexible: Always enforcing rules, without any compassion or understanding, can give off the vibe that your employees well-being is the least of your concern. As we preach from a regulatory standpoint, one size does not fit all. It's ok to offer an accommodation in certain circumstances, and you don't have to feel guilty about not giving it to everyone on your team.

  • Stay grounded: Office culture is a tremendous influence on employees' fulfillment. Having managers that respect their employees – and don't let power go to their head – is critical to retaining good talent. And creating an environment where good talent feels autonomous will keep your organization on the road to success.



I have read through the answers and comments. I don't see any mention of this engineers ability to deliver work as required nor any mention of an ability to mentor others in his group and pass on his knowledge.

Unless I am missing something, this person could be brilliant in becoming conversant with yet another new, novel technology. Yet in most cases what is required is completing work on the current code base, in accordance with the established conventions and processes.

Doing lots of overtime is not necessarily an indication of producing commensurate value for the company. I suspect that at the upper levels of management this person is seen as arrogant and self-entitled, not as being brilliant and an asset.

As the direct manager of this person, I think the critical factor is to be the mentor who shows this "over-eager" engineer how to attain the ambitions by coming into alignment with the organisation's values and expectations. If the person is impatient and chooses to leave, then that confirms that there is no mutually acceptable common ground.

  • 2
    His ability to mentor may be implicit when OP says encouraging other engineers to do the same. This has caused a lot of disruptions in the company (emphasis mine), if he isn't a good mentor no one would care and no disruption should have been created to the company Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 14:05
  • "I suspect that at the upper levels of management this person is seen as arrogant and self-entitled, not as being brilliant and an asset." then they are likely hypocritical, non-technical, and fear for their jobs. If this engineer quits doing OT and it causes lots of disruption, then they were "producing commensurate value for the company", as well as when they learned new tech over the weekends. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 16:56
  • 2
    Overtime is not a measure of productivity. In the long term, it leads inevitably to burnout. It's unfortunate that this engineer has been led to believe that his overtime was accelerating his promotion
    – user90842
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:17
  • 2
    @FelipePereira To the contrary, however: if he were a good mentor, he would not be mentoring others in a way that causes disruptions.
    – Andrew
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 18:51
  • 1
    @Andrew if his goal was to cause disruptions (because of the denied promotion) and he lead other people to follow him I'd say he has some leadership skills already (even if they are used for evil or good purposes) Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 19:13

I see this differently. You told him the qualifications to get him to the level he wants. He's found that unacceptable and as such stopped doing his work. What will happen when he gets promoted to what he wants now, but late wants something else? Are you willing to put the company in his hands and when things don't work his way, he decides to not do it? You have a company, you told him the qualifications to get where he wants, and rather than work towards that, he wants you to bend the rules just for him.

My advice: let him go now. Yes you get a unique severance pay, but spending $700k now is better than more he would get by staying there in the years you need him. I rather have 2 so-so engineers who can get the same work done but takes longer, than I would having 1 good engineer but could hold my product at risk unless I give him more than what he agreed to accept.

  • 17
    "He's […] stopped doing his work." I don't recall OP saying the employee stopped doing their work. Just the opposite in fact, that the employee used to do way more than their fair share of the work, and now they are "merely" doing their own fair share. The employee is still doing all their work, according to the question.
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 16:47
  • 5
    "I rather have 2 so-so engineers who can get the same work done but takes longer, than I would having 1 good engineer..." That logic does not seem to support your conclusion to fire him. Instead, if that is your reasoning, maybe you could suggest that they hire a second person to work on the same tasks he is... then you have your 2 engineers you want.
    – Aaron
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 16:50
  • 2
    I'd rather have two average engineers who don't break production, than one hot-dog superstar who thinks he knows better than everyone else. (I become the #1 DBA when the previous #1 DBA crashed a BIG database in the middle of the day when everyone else told him not to, because of an obscure but published risk. He knew better, though... and they walked him out the door that day.)
    – RonJohn
    Commented Sep 30, 2019 at 17:26
  • 2
    @bob The way I see it it's only a matter of time before this person holds something of yours hostage in a blackmail scheme to comply with his demand to get promoted. The problem isn't that he's following the overtime rule, but rather he is doing it in spite as he's telling others not to do it. And this behavior only started after his review. Before he was doing overtime eager to do work but only with the assumption he's going to get promoted. Now that failed, he has no reason to do overtime but instead of quitting he's sitting around in spite.
    – Dan
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 12:28
  • 2
    Yeah that's a good point. I'd certainly watch my back with this person.
    – bob
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 12:50

If you want him to leave on his own accord (to avoid the 700k severance), introduce him to self-employed software engineers – with their mentoring he will see he there is a whole new world out there which is better suited to his skills and risk appetite

  • 5
    How would encouraging this engineer to become self-employed help? It sounds like he's either waiting to be let go without cause to claim the $700k as severance, or find a better opportunity if one comes along. He also sounds smart enough to be able to do independent development on the side.
    – Cloud
    Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 3:07
  • 1
    Your advice is to introduce the engineer to "the competition" and expect him to take his skills away from the company? Him reducing his hours has "caused a lot of disruptions in the company", so reducing them to zero isn't? It's likely the engineer is going to ditch this company anyway, so why not help him out the door to avoid paying severance? This is really bad advice all around. It's likely the engineer is has already looked into self-employment and other contract work. The company shouldn't compound their mistakes by actively avoiding the severance. Commented Oct 1, 2019 at 17:10
  • nah, they want him to leave, and the self employed make more. win win.
    – Phil
    Commented Oct 2, 2019 at 23:22

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