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I'm a new manager who's getting extremely frustrated and stressed because of a team member:

  • he used to work quite independently before I came, but team's results were bad so my predecessor was fired and I hired
  • At first I left him a lot of freedom, just discussing some optimization potentials and facilitating him. This brought nothing and he presented me the same status during our weeklies. So after around 6 weeks I had to change my approach into: "Let's discuss your tasks for next week" and "Let's discuss what you've done last week". The reaction was very negative.
  • Now he hardly does anything. He gets tasks but ignores them or tells me he's done and then at the first sight it's visible he isn't and the results aren't usable.
  • The whole situation is very stressful for me. I'm new at the company. HR has the attitude "let's wait and see what happens" and I have goals which I will probably miss because of him.
  • I know the team member is looking for a new job but given he's overpaid at the current position the probability he will quit soon is very low.
  • He's been complaining he's not interested in what our department does. So we offered him a different position within our org, one more aligned with his goals, but he turned it down, possibly because he would have to accept a pay cut.

Currently I spend a lot of time aligning with him on tasks and how to perform them, which he then ignores or solves in such a superficial way that it would be faster for me to do them from scratch. Rounds of feedback don't help. It's a huge time investment from me, which doesn't pay. He always has a lot of excuses ("I didn't know how to do x" - ok, but then he should have found out or at least signaled problems).

What stance should I take here to decrease his impact as far as possible?


Update:

I actually followed some of your advice before I got it here. E.g. I started to document everything. But your advice led me to send an email like this yesterday:

"Hey Paul, I hope you're doing great. I would like to ask you again about this [task] we discussed during our 1:1 on July the 11th. As you know you reported you had completed that on the next day. We then discovered you didn't. You then told me you completed it 3 days later. 2 days ago I was sitting in a meeting with our colleagues from [country] and wanted to show them the [task done]. While doing that I discovered that it wasn't done actually. So I wrote you an email (attached). I haven't got an answer so here I come again: could you give me some update please? If you have any problems, please let me know and I will try to help, but otherwise we can't take so long to solve such issues. Especially if you report that sth has been done I would like to be able to believe it really has".

I sent it to both him and HR.

Can you please do me a short reality check? Is the email rude? HR told me today I come pushy, forceful and impolite in the emails.

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    So... why was your predecessor fired, and not this employee? Actually, this is a serious question: there must be some specific reason why the employee is still around, and knowing this would enable much more specific answers. Jul 23 '20 at 12:19
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    @StephanKolassa, actually the fact the former manager was awful explains why this person hasn't been fired. The previous manager was known to ignore problems and see the situation as good although the team didn't deliver much.
    – 9027485
    Jul 23 '20 at 16:58
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    "after around 6-8 weeks" - the only appropriate time measurement on Stack Exchange, it turns out.
    – corsiKa
    Jul 24 '20 at 2:10
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    I agree with @Old_Lamplighter that the last 2 sentences are a little out of place. Personally I would have put in a deadline to have it done, and placed a requirement to share either screen shots or pull request numbers or qa signoff as proof that it was completed. I wouldn't state that I need to believe him. I would let my requirements say for me that I don't. Jul 24 '20 at 16:13
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    What is 'sth'? Please use full words. Jul 25 '20 at 7:14
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You've put yourself into a position where you are a MINO (manager in name only).

Here's the situation:

  • The team wasn't performing
  • The previous manager was fired
  • You were brought in to fix the problem
  • You allowed the same behaviors to continue, and you're getting the same results.

To resolve it, first realize Old Lamplighter's first rule: More of what does not work, does not work.

Going forward:

  • Set clear performance goals and expectations
  • Document every act of malicious compliance or underperformance
  • Set one performance metric as "initiates communication when a roadblock is encountered", then document every time he doesn't
  • Document everything he claims not to know how to do, and send a request to HR for additional training for him on that subject
  • Document every time his results are useless, then assign him the task of correcting it.
  • If you need to do the things from scratch to meet YOUR goals, do so, and document the fact you had to fix it.

A paper trail is your best friend. Once you build a file, you'll have the "see" part for HR's "let's wait and see".

(Thanks to employee-X for the suggestion.)

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    Great answer, but I'm not sure I agree with the "If you need to do the things from scratch to meet YOUR goals, do so, and document the fact you had to fix it.".
    – Steve
    Jul 22 '20 at 20:13
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    @Steve it's not optimal, but if the ignatz can punish the OP by not doing his work, and the OP hangs for it, the only alternative is to do the work himself, and document the fact that ignatz didn't Jul 22 '20 at 20:17
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    "Asks for help" being a performance metric would have to be phrased very carefully to avoid getting flooded with requests in malicious compliance.
    – Myles
    Jul 22 '20 at 22:55
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    Documentation is your ally here. I would say document everything whether it's positive or negative. This person had displayed (based on OP's description) a lack of integrity in lying about tasks. That's immediate firing material from where I sit. Jul 23 '20 at 0:26
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    You misspelled your own name, but I can't suggest an edit to fix it for you. Jul 23 '20 at 11:49
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You've got two problems.

First, and most obvious problem: you don't have the authority to actually make your subordinate work, and you don't have the authority to fire them. Worse, it's your head on the chopping block for their bad performance.

In your shoes, here is what I would do with Tim (giving your report a name, since I didn't see on in the post.)

Forget weekly meetings. Go Daily. One of the biggest benefits to daily scrum meetings is the transparency it brings. If someone isn't doing their job, it becomes very clear, very fast. It doesn't have to be long - just a quick 10 minute standup meeting each morning.

Also, don't just meet in person. Get into the habit of making a after-meeting write-up of:

  • What Tim was assigned to work on that day.
  • What Tim was assigned to work on the previous day
  • What Tim actually accomplished the previous day

... which, 15 minutes after the meeting, you send via email to yourself and Tim - a daily meeting notes writeup.

That might fix the problem itself - Tim might finally start working (or he might get annoyed enough to just leave.)

If you need to go further than this? That brings up the second problem.

Your second problem: You stopped at HR.

You don't report to HR. More importantly, your goals and HR's goals don't line up at all. Why should HR care whether you've got a useless employee?

The minute after you talked with HR about wanting to fire Tim and they blew you off? You should've been in your boss' office. After all, Tim's performance is accountable to you - and your performance is accountable to your boss. Your goals and your boss' goals probably line up perfectly - both of you want your area to work smoothly. In other words: escalate up the org chart above you. Let your boss deal with HR.

Combine those two parts? If Tim doesn't shape up, and you can hand your boss 20 emails in a row documenting that Tim hasn't done 5% of what he's supposed to do? You can bet HR's not going to be able to take a "Let's just wait and see" approach to it.

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    Yeah, why ask HR or the Internet when you can ask you boss?
    – camden_kid
    Jul 23 '20 at 15:57
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    Does the employee fill in a time card? If not doing actual work, what time codes are they using? Time card fraud is a fireable offense that HR should support.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 23 '20 at 16:31
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    @JonCuster How would you process time card while working remotely? Traffic monitor? Evadable. Screen monitor? Oh dear ...
    – Angel
    Jul 24 '20 at 15:39
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    @F8ER - our time system is on line. No monitor or invasive means needed. They have work assignments - if they aren't getting anything done yet charging the project they are lying about performing work. This isn't rocket science.
    – Jon Custer
    Jul 24 '20 at 16:25
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    @JonCuster - I'd suggest making that a separate answer. I mean, it's not really relevant to this particular answer. It should either be a comment in the main question (if you're asking how their time card works) or as a separate answer (if you're suggesting a possible solution.)
    – Kevin
    Jul 24 '20 at 20:54
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I disagree with the other answers that more pressure is the answer. It is obvious that this employee doesn't react positively to more pressure, and possibly knows that there is a limit as to how high you can turn the dial.

I've been in similar situations, from both sides. I've been at jobs where my motivation was on the floor and my manager had no idea how to raise it, to the point where he said so to my face (the answer in my head was: "then you're wrong at your job, because that is your job"). I've also been the boss of people who did basically nothing under my predecessor. The end result of a bunch of one-on-one meetings was that half of them turn around and performed, some of them really well, and the other half left.

The thing you are looking for is intrinsic motivation. Since the guy is already paid well, it isn't money. A raise or something won't get him into action. He's probably at the point where money is simply a hygiene factor - not noticed when there, no difference noticed between good and great, but greatly noticed when missing.

But everyone has something that motivates them from within. They might enjoy interesting challenges, or the quality of their work, or working in a specific environment or specific people.

He may at one time have found it at his job, maybe he was great at it, maybe that's the reason he is overpaid. Do you know this guys history? Do you have performance records going back some years? Was he always problematic or did he become so?

Figure out where the guy is coming from. When was he hired, how did he perform, did his performance and attitude to his work change over time? Ask your predecessor if you can, check his file in HR, talk to other managers who had contact with him.

Then, armed with information, go into a one-on-one meeting with him. Make it clear in the invitation that this isn't the standard "I want to put more pressure on you" meeting that he's probably expecting by now. Make it more personal. Like holding it not in your office, etc.

Then straight-out ask him where he lost is motivation and what he is missing in his job. Tell him that you are in a very difficult situation, that you know he's looking for a job, and that you see it as your job to bring his motivation and enjoyment back up. If you have ideas from his history, bring them up and see how he reacts. Show interest in the guy. Listen to what he says and use his answers to find solutions.

Some ideas of what may be: He could have something going on in his private life. Don't dig there unless he offers up information freely, but you can ask something like "is there something going on outside work that's tough on you right now? I don't want to know details, just if it's outside my scope I should know and maybe the company can offer support." -- it could also be that there was a falling out between him and your predecessor and such things aren't always healed automatically with a change of heads. Could be that the kinds of tasks he receives have changed, or that he's grown unhappy with the company culture, or that he had a flirt with the girl in legal that turned sour, or one of a million other reasons.

As a manager, I believe it is your duty to see your people as people, not just as performance numbers. People have dreams, desires, goals, motivations, but also fears, troubles and worries.

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    "Figure out where the guy is coming from" is a great approach. I think it is even better when you seek to get that information from the employee him/herself.
    – buckminst
    Jul 26 '20 at 14:43
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the fact the former manager was awful explains why this person hasn't been fired. The previous manager was known to ignore problems and see the situation as good although the team didn't deliver much.

Are you sure this is a fact? On whose word is this? It sounds like the previous manager had exactly the same problem as you. Of course the team performs poorly - one rotten apple in the barrel ...

Even if the previous manager was ignoring problems, this is simply what HR apparently want you to do.

What stance should I take here to decrease his impact as far as possible?

Is the employee related to someone important in the company? - if so the only course may be to give them a minimum amount of non-vital work and rely on yourself and the rest of the team. Focus on the good people.

No-one likes intractable problems. If you can't push it up to a level higher than yourself and you can't take drastic action (like firing) then there is no perfect solution.

If you "go to HR", remember that there is a hierarchy there as well. It may have landed on a junior's desk and they have no power either. What else will they do but "see how things go"?

Get as high as you can in the organisation - preferably to someone who is known to have a sympathetic ear as well as power. Then ask for advice.

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Just to add to the excellent answers already here, this is to mention a useful tool that hasn't been brought up yet (as such).

About when things center around whether [Team Member] has or hasn't actually completed a task, the point about malicious compliance -- and including [Team Member]'s understanding of whether and when a task is done in the first place:

You may want to have a look at Scrum's concept of a Definition of Done, and what practitioners are writing about their experience applying it.

While Scrum has been mentioned on this QA for better or worse, as has been very aptly discussed in the comments, and while the name of the tool can really be seen as just a fancy wording of the advice to be clear and state what must be reached explicitly and such that completion is unambiguously measurable and verifiable, I find the essence of using a DoD, and a lot of the detail that has evolved around it, quite useful in a situation like yours (and many more).

( i.e. save the specifics of the context and what has been added to make it part of a selling paradigm in its, oh well, own right.)

That's in part because considerable discussion in the field has exposed a lot of helpful patterns both in language and behavior, aimed at reaching completion, and experience from a lot of different projects and situations of what has worked there.

Not trying to elaborate here because there's too much, but the gist of it is to specify when a task is done in a way that is factual and inevitable. Depending on the nature of the task, writing a DoD can also be an enlightening experience about the true essentials of the task and what may be able to be stripped, reducing load. (This does not mean that using the pattern has to be highly time consuming - it can become second nature, allowing for quite reasonably quick writes.)

You will find that the theory and practice of the DoD pronouncedly includes human factors and dynamics, which makes it particularly useful in a field of tension between conflicting human wishes and interests. And, the context of it being Scrum, it's no big surprise that it seems particularly suited for handling tasks with people in a mindset that resonates strongly with working in a self-guided manner.

(That is, if your [Team Member] is going to prove they are really capable of working in a self-guided manner in the first place.)

In the end, what we learn from the field makes for a good tool to help people be accountable, and self-accountable, and thus reliable to work with. If done right, it's guidance in going a way that puts the power of practical necessity to work, rather than personal conflict which seems to have become part of the dynamics in your situation with [Team Member].

Consistently using a Definition of Done for every task may also be helpful to take personal consternation out of the equation, making it normal to let all things come down to fact (which could, and should, come quite normally once you're used to it) instead of conflict.

A [Team Member] may be fighting you but it's hard to fight fact (other than by working on it or openly quitting from it - or maybe first claiming to not understand the matter of the fact, which comes with the usual handles on it and openness for improval). That may perhaps provide a bit of relief from the layer of personal conflict dynamics that can come with an unwilling subordinate.

(And thinking of it, the latter may have something in parallel with the technique of when you have a problem with a person about a matter, quit standing frontally opposed to the person and put the matter on a flipchart (or whatever), so you're now standing side by side with the person in frontally confronting the matter on the flipchart. Not saying I'm seeing [Team Member] already there, as it's both persons turning, but I guess it will be harder to fight you when you're not available for fighting. In using a DoD, after you've successfully introduced it in any respective case, you're rather leaving the matter to the other person to play with and conquer.)

So as for the impact of [Team Member] on the situation, or their role in it, a clear Definition of Done makes clear whether they have completed their tasks or not, and whether they have respected the Definition of Done in the first place. From there, it would boil down to them making up their mind or ending with a clear series of documented and visible non-compliance, if they so choose, instead of ongoing malicious (fake) compliance and poorly hidden fighting.

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Man that HR is really annoying... if an employee is not trustworthy it's the manager's job to underline that, HR doesn't have any power on managing employees they just do paperwork in this regard. I feel like the problem here is not the employee, which you're managing as anyone would expect, but HR who's not getting the point of all of your communications.

If she has so many complaints about your way of communicating, ask her to provide you with a template to use in such situations so you get to do your job and she can't complain about you being rude yadda yadda.

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    It's not quite this clean-cut. HR definitely has a say in the firing of employees. For an absurd example, imagine a manager who has systematically been firing the women in their department, and currently has a sexual harassment claim from another woman in their area that's being investigated. It's pretty clear that the manager wouldn't be allowed to fire any other women in the department just because they're the manager. HR's role in this isn't just 'doing paperwork' - they're responsible for protecting the company from litigation, PR issues, and a number of other things.
    – Kevin
    Jul 24 '20 at 14:21
  • Yes I agree with you, this is why I added "in this regard", i.e. HR doesn't do performance evaluations so she shouldn't interfere in the way the manager tackles problems with employees. "Pushy, rude, demanding" etc. are not things that might put the company at risk... the situation here is not really relating to your example IMHO.
    – Cris
    Jul 24 '20 at 15:02

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