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One of our senior (and more competent) engineers, "Peter", who was due for a promotion and pay raise a few months back, raised an issue and meeting with me when his promotion was deferred indefinitely due to COVID. After explaining to him how many companies, even Google, are putting off promotions and raises due to the pandemic, he just retorted with statements like "exceptions are made for exceptional circumstances; I made the company a lot of money" and "how nice, but it seems executives and managers didn't get that memo, as they're getting record bonuses". After explaining how I'm not the one that makes those decisions, I have to threaten him with a formal reprimand to calm him down.

Fast forward a few months: we've noticed a change in the programming languages and technologies being used in our products (i.e. more open source technologies, modern programming languages and methodologies, etc.). Productivity is even up, and Peter seems to be in good spirits, and back to his usual levels of productivity too. All seems well, until we noticed 10x the normal requests from the Legal team for permission to use open source software in our products (not a problem, as long as it doesn't mean we have to give our products away for free). What's odd is that employees are the owners/authors of a lot of these third-party open-source projects.

It turns out Peter spread the word of deferred promotions and raises, and created the impression that if he was denied "his due", most others would likely face the same. So, Peter took it upon himself to encourage teams to make an effort to use new technology that would look good/modern on the CV/resume if employees were laid off. He also led an effort to get overtime to zero, and have employees work on work-related open-source projects in their spare time (i.e. "use GitHub as a secondary resume/CV"). Even though we can use most of the open source software employees have been developing in spare time, we no longer have exclusive ownership of code employees would write as part of overtime to advance within the company.

In short: Peter has taken it upon himself to drive down overtime across the company, and plan projects so the first priority is to buff up the resumes of colleagues and himself.

I can't fire him outright, since there's no material evidence he led this effort, and I'm being urged to try and reclaim/salvage/steer him "back to the light side". I'm permitted to offer up to a 30% one-time bonus (i.e. about 4 months of pay), but he just smirks and says he "doesn't know what I'm talking about". I even overstepped my authority and said "look, this needs to end; I can offer a 50% bonus and let you walk away with your severance package too in order to save face", and he still insists (but smirks) that he's oblivious to the topic. He's now turning down the promotion as well stating "I have no idea what you're talking about, but you and the execs clearly have a poor opinion of me if you're offering money for help with something I don't know about; and the well has been nice and poisoned it seems, in your eyes. I don't see any benefit to continuing these discussions".

Is there any way to steer such an employee (a lot of the engineers trust him, so he seems to have a lot of sway), or do we just rip the bandaid and fire him? Unfortunately, his severance package is large, so I'll be in trouble if we have to pay it out in full.

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  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat.
    – Neo
    Jul 27 '20 at 20:18
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After explaining how I'm not the one that makes those decisions, I have to threaten him with a formal reprimand to calm him down.

If the execs are actually getting these bonuses then Peter has every right to be mad. He is not the problem, your execs are.

Even though we can use most of the open source software employees have been developing in spare time, we no longer have exclusive ownership of code employees would write as part of overtime to advance within the company.

What makes you think you are entitled to what people do outside of work hours? If you don't pay overtime, you are entitled to NOTHING. Be thankful that some of the stuff is useful for you.

I can't fire him outright, since there's no material evidence he led this effort

What's your location? In an US at-will state you can fire anyone for anything or nothing at all.

".. I don't see any benefit to continuing these discussions"

That's a clear indication that you lost him. You had your chance,you treated him poorly and now he's treating you the same way.

Is there any way to steer such an employee

Not anymore. It's pretty clear that your company had plenty of chances and opportunities but blew them all. Given the current tone, this relationship seems to be broken beyond repair.

Your options are:

  1. Suck it up. If you feel you get enough value out of the situation then you can just let it continue until he leaves
  2. Fire him within the legal framework or your situation. If you are legally required to pay severance, than you pay severance. Don't sign contracts that you are not willing to keep.
  3. Fix your company. Make sure compensation, bonuses and advancements are fairly and equitably distributed and that there is full transparency on how this works and applies. Once Peter sees the effort he may come around (if that's what you want), but there is no guarantee for this.
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    I've got to disagree on this part: "we no longer have exclusive ownership of code employees would write as part of overtime to advance within the company" / "What makes you think you are entitled to what people do outside of work hours? If you don't pay overtime, you are entitled to NOTHING." I think this depends on culture, locale and whether they are salaried exempt (which I assume they are) in which there isn't really "overtime" in terms of number of specific hours but more like working a 50-hor week vs 40 (or whatever). As such if they're working on company projects the company owns that. Jul 27 '20 at 19:10
  • The author incorrectly claims the ownership status would be different if the employees worked overtime. The company owns their work product while they performed their duties during their normal work week or outside of it by being paid overtime. What is true is the work, done outside of work, is not owned by the company but that would be true regardless of the situation. Furthermore, it sounds like the company expects overtime as a normal thing, and then oddly decided not to pay bonuses. It’s not clear if this was paid or unpaid overtime though.
    – Donald
    Jul 27 '20 at 22:41
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    "work, done outside of work, is not owned by the company" I don't think you can definitively say this. It's quite usual for contracts to claim ownership of any work done while employed. Without looking at the contract it's impossible to say. And now that that code which the company possibly owns is now under some kind of gpl license makes this whole thing a legal mess. Anyway the answer goes too far in saying the company is not entitled to the code their employee wrote. In most cases they would be. Jul 28 '20 at 9:26
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It's too late to close the barn door, the horses have already escaped.

All I can say is that you disrespect this guy at your own peril. Never disrespect your employees, especially key ones. The wisest move here would be to,as they say in execu-speak, "embrace change".

"Peter" has managed to cause a massive increase in efficiency, a paradigm shift, and subverted the entire business process, replacing it with one of his own. You've already lost the war. Your only move now is to join him because you can't beat him.

Doing anything else has terrible risks, as outlined in This post

And here was My Answer to that foolishness

He's outmaneuvered your company, and has done so legally.

Approach him delicately and ask him what he wants.

He is smart enough to know he has you where he wants you, and he has set up a Xanatos Gambit where, if you fire him, he wins, and if he stays he builds up his resume until he can quit at a critical time, and likely take half the team with him.

Your only choice is to offer him something to compensate for the REAL thing he's upset about, RESPECT

Give him the overdue raise, without conditions, and an apology for the delay. You don't want to be the villain in this. If you make it personal, he will do the same, and he's already proven how terrifyingly competent he is.

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  • "He's outmaneuvered your company, and has done so legally" - this is the part I'm finding difficult to reconcile. I'm a backend engineer so I'm not sure if my experience relates, but let's say my project needs a custom "monitoring function" that will check continuously if the backend database is available, and report back to the front end a status such as "everything is OK", "degraded performance", "downtime right now" etc and for whatever reason we can't use an off-the-shelf product for that, I need to develop it. So instead of writing it as my employment I open source & integrate it?! Jul 27 '20 at 20:15
  • @seventyeightist Yep. "Hey, why develop, when we can use open source, and not have to pay for Dev time, OR 3rd party! Win-win". Not far fetched at all, and he ran it all by the legal department. Classic outflanking. I've seen things done to a lesser degree, so this is not out of the realm of possibility Jul 27 '20 at 20:20
  • Yeah, I understand that that's how that engineer probably presented it to legal, but presumably leaving out the "conflict of interest" part where that open source project only existed because it was a business requirement of the OPs company in the first place. And that the dev proposing to use it was actually the 'owner' of that project... What's to stop everyone "open sourcing" all the requirements they are presented with as developers and then just integrating their own code, then? .... IP. Jul 27 '20 at 20:26
  • @seventyeightist He snookered the legal department. Remember M.A.S.H.? Radar smuggled an entire jeep home, one piece at a time That's how this guy did it. He just brought one open source bit at a time to legal, and had made most of the company software open source before they knew it Jul 27 '20 at 20:33
  • @seventyeightist while I haven't seen this done too many times(twice in nearly 40 years in the workforce), When it is pulled off, it tends to go very much like this. Jul 27 '20 at 20:41
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Is there any way to steer such an employee (a lot of the engineers trust him, so he seems to have a lot of sway), or do we just rip the bandaid and fire him?

This seems to be the question that's at the core of what is being asked here.

If you fire him, then if he really has that much sway with the rest of the team, there is a chance they will leave with him or otherwise act counter to your wishes. Still, if the company really wants things done their way, and the employee won't do that, firing him may be your only option - though to be blunt, the fundamental problem here doesn't sound like the employee, but the disaster area that the company has created.

To avoid the risks involved in firing him, you are going to need to get the employee back on-side - not by "threatening him with a reprimand" (which I can guarantee did not calm him down, even if it shut him up at that time) nor by asking him to leave of his own accord (with or without full severance) into an uncertain job market, but by actually treating him and your other employees properly.

This means at least all of the following:

  • Swap with another manager, or otherwise remove yourself from a position of authority over this employee.
  • Give him the promotion and pay rise he was due (and the same for any other employee who missed out). Get the executives to pay back their bonuses to cover this, if needed.
  • Announce (and implement) a policy of paying for overtime at time-and-a-half or double pay, but only when requested by the company in advance (to control the expense), and with the consent of the employee working the extra hours (not compulsory).
  • Introduce pay rises, employee benefit schemes, training courses, an on-site gym, a cycle-to-work-scheme, new hardware, and do anything else that might make this company a better place to work.
  • Apologise for what's happened, ask people what they want to change, and make those changes. It sounds like both you and the executives need to do this.

And, the one thing you might have to do that isn't to the employees' benefit but your company may have no choice but to do:

  • Ensure employees declare an interest in any open source request, and decline the use of open source projects to which any employee is a regular or significant contributor. (Do not attempt to get them to stop working on open source in their spare time, that's up to them; but prevent any possibility of someone holding the company's core code hostage).

Those are your choices. Either part ways with the employee (which may have unforeseen consequences), or work very hard to regain a good working relationship with this employee and any other employee influenced by him (which may be very difficult). I recommend the latter but it is uncertain.

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    The very last point on declarations was useful. The rest of your points are not helpful, as they would require me to have authority over my bosses and bosses' bosses in order to implement.
    – Hanny
    Jul 27 '20 at 17:34
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    @Hanny Have you tried asking them, instead of assuming you need the authority to tell them? In any case, that's what you need to do to "salvage" him as the question asked. If your company won't do those things, that doesn't make the answer unhelpful, it means your company has made its choice. Jul 27 '20 at 17:37
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    "... decline the use of open source projects to which any employee is a regular or significant contributor." -- let me be the one to ask a stupid question: what exactly is the risk in using such open source in company products? How could a regular/major contributor to a said open source project hold the company hostage?
    – Igor G
    Jul 28 '20 at 7:00
  • @IgorG from what the OP is saying, it sounds as though the devs are doing work that they used to do as unpaid overtime (note: not something I condone!) to instead do open source "hobby side projects" at home; but then using paid work time to integrate the company's systems with those open source projects. Which means code that is crucial to the company and is really only developed for the company (but now public and open source) is not owned by the company, and could be used as easily by their competitors, or when the staff in question leave they could change the license on that project, etc. Jul 28 '20 at 8:37
  • @IgorG I don't agree with what the OP seems to be trying to achieve (get everyone back to doing unpaid overtime even if it means they are less productive) but I do agree that a company needs to properly own its intellectual property. Open source software has its uses, but not like as described. Jul 28 '20 at 8:41
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You should embrace the situation

This could be beneficial for you depending on whether or not you want to stay. You can now claim to be managing all this open-source software. You can claim a boost in productivity. You could potentially be able to claim to bring engineers with you if you wanted a management job at a new company, which is always valuable. Especially given that they are clearly passionate engineers. This assumes that you haven't damaged their trust in you too much.

Win for you. Win for your staff.

You all leave for higher raises.

Considering that your alternative is firing him and getting in trouble for doing so because of the cost and management here does not seem to be the caring type, consider joining the fleet as it sails outward to more promising land. I suspect that this fight with Peter will eventually cost you several engineers, for which you might also be punished.

The fact that management got bonuses and the fact that they would punish you for defending the company's interest indicates that this is probably not a company you want to be with long term.

This is a perfect opportunity for a controlled exit.

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  • Interesting answer; I upvoted it as I think it's useful, although I'm not sure I agree with you on principle! Yes, OP could probably benefit in some ways (although I don't see how they can claim to be "managing" open source s/w that by its nature is 'owned' by its developers, not the company using it -- or do you just mean in a configuration control sense?) ... maybe even make an 'exit' in the way you suggest, but fundamentally OP doesn't seem to be opposed to the use of OSS in principle, but, rightly, is opposed (or at least uneasy) when said OSS isn't just general libraries... (cont) Jul 27 '20 at 19:31
  • (cont) ... but rather, specific components that the developers have taken it upon themselves to write in their own time for resume purposes. Random example as I've no idea what the company does: they need to integrate a jQuery-based color picker that uses the "material design" colors so that the end-user can select the desired color for "calendar entries of category X" (or whatever). Would those devs have independently decided to create that software, if there wasn't a business need? - no! It's intrinsically part of the company's IP. OP might "win" but on what IMO is a sketchy ethical basis. Jul 27 '20 at 19:35
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Productivity is even up.

To me does not look like a problem. As you are asking this question and saying that you don't have authority to do some of the proposed solutions maybe everybody except you is happy. It this is the case I would recommend ignore the whole thing. If your boss shares your concerns but solutions may require more authority than you have then describe it to the boss and here your responsibility ends as well.

Even though we can use most of the open source software employees have been developing in spare time, we no longer have exclusive ownership of code employees would write as part of overtime to advance within the company.

There is no sign there is any "we" in the situation. This is not your problem.

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Wait, what? Your company sounds horrible. Peter should have quit a long time ago, and to be honest so should you.

"Peter", who was due for a promotion and pay raise a few months back, raised an issue and meeting with me when his promotion was deferred indefinitely due to COVID. After explaining to him how many companies, even Google, are putting off promotions and raises due to the pandemic, he just retorted with statements like ... "how nice, but it seems executives and managers didn't get that memo, as they're getting record bonuses".

So your company is raising executive pay while the company is making less money due to Covid, and that additional bonus is coming out of the paycheques of the employees in the form of deferred raises?

It turns out Peter spread the word of deferred promotions and raises, and created the impression that if he was denied "his due", most others would likely face the same.

Well, wouldn't they? The company's view is that executives deserve to be paid first, and that if there wasn't enough money after the executives got their ever-increasing bonuses, then that money would be taken from promotions of the employees. That's exactly what happened to Peter; if you don't like it then perhaps you shouldn't have done it. You made your bed, now lie in it.

Peter took it upon himself to encourage teams to make an effort to use new technology that would look good/modern on the CV/resume if employees were laid off.

Peter is upgrading your tech stack for you. This is a good thing, because it means that you won't have the situation where, in 3-4 years when you're stuck on Javascript AJAX and everyone you're recruiting knows Angular and React, you can't hire anyone to support your "legacy" code (which is rightfully termed "legacy" but is actually "active"). He's doing you a favor. Why is this a problem?

He also led an effort to get overtime to zero

So you think reducing overtime to zero is a bad thing? Your company encourages its employees to impair their work-life balance by giving their time up for free? That's a blatant disregard for your employees' health. You should be ashamed of yourself for even typing these words.

and have employees work on work-related open-source projects in their spare time

What's wrong with what your employees do in their spare time? They can work on open-source projects if they want. Or do you want to monopolize all the actions of your employees even in their spare time? That goes beyond micromanagement, it's toxic.

overtime to advance within the company

Wait, so your company rewards employees not for how good their work is, but for how much overtime they do? So your bar for promotion is "don't have a family, and if you do have a family, spend as little time with your wife and kids as you can and stay in the office 24/7 or you won't get promoted"? That sounds pretty awful.

Is there any way to steer such an employee (a lot of the engineers trust him, so he seems to have a lot of sway), or do we just rip the bandaid and fire him? Unfortunately, his severance package is large, so I'll be in trouble if we have to pay it out in full.

Now to answer the actual question. No, you cannot steer Peter. Especially if he knows that his severance package would hurt the company. Nor should you. He is making your company better, by using modern technical practices, a modern tech stack, encouraging his coworkers to be healthier and therefore more productive and happier, and taking a stand against your cronyism bullshit. Peter should be the CEO of your company, and you should be fired for even thinking of writing this question

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I think the question itself is an indication of an ongoing problem with the OP.

Let me give you a similar possible situation:

"Developers where I work are grabbing open-source solutions that solve our needs and then integrating them in to our products!"

... you don't view that as a problem, do you? I mean, why would you want to spend the resources developing in-house when there's already a solution out there for what you want? In general, this situation would be a good thing!

Now, let's rephrase it:

"Developers where I work are grabbing open-source solutions that are tailored specifically to our business needs and are developed by people with an in-depth understanding of our business needs."

... uh, that's amazing! You're not only getting to integrate in open-source solutions, but those solutions were developed specifically with your company in mind! I mean, this is practically fairy-tale.

... and that's the situation you're basically in right now. Your company is able to put quality open-source software that was developed with your company specifically in mind!

So what's your actual objection to this? That employees are doing open-source programming on their own time at all? That the open-source projects they're working are also relevant to your company? That your employees are no longer giving you free unpaid overtime labor?

That's what has me convinced you're not going to find a good solution. Because it never even occurred to you that the current situation is actually still really really good for your company.

You're still getting employees willing to work overtime for your company. Sure, that extra labor is on the open-source market. But it still beats the business-standard situation - where, if you want a proprietary form of that software, you'd have to pay an employee to do it during their actual job.

If we're being 100% honest, your issue is that you're still thinking in terms of "My employees should be working overtime for the company". They're upset with you because they feel that their efforts were exploited. And despite them giving you an outcome you frankly don't deserve, you're upset with them because they're not giving you extra unpaid labor. Wait, no, scratch that - you're upset that the extra unpaid labor they're giving to you isn't only yours.

So here's my advice: be thankful. If you push things any further, it's almost certain that your devs will simply put in their 8 hours and do nothing to help your company out during their off-hours. Or simply quit.

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    But the OSS solutions that are "tailored to their business needs" is because of the knowledge that the devs have of the company, and done in the course of their employment there. It doesn't sound like they are writing general purpose libraries but rather specific solutions. OPs concern was that the company's IP is being compromised by being "open sourced" involuntarily ("Long term, we're going to get creamed if we're giving away all our software for free on GitHub."). I appreciate the unpaid labor aspect but the solution can't be "make that IP available to others". Jul 27 '20 at 20:03
  • @seventyeightist - How would it be the company's IP? I mean, I've got a lot of domain knowledge on Content Management systems from my current job. But I'm not forbidden from ever using that knowledge outside the company. If tonight, on my home computer, I write a brand new CM system... that's not the company's IP. Even if I wrote it specifically for the use cases that my company might run into... it's still my IP. Generally, unless the devs are doing it on company property or on company time? It's not the company's IP (though they'd have to check the employee contract to know for sure.)
    – Kevin
    Jul 27 '20 at 20:41

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