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We have a problem with one of our chief engineers, but we cannot fire him (yet) due to professional qualifications he holds, and it take time to replace him.

This engineer was a hard worker years ago, and won several promotions, and became a "chief engineer" 2 years ago. We have a problem that he spends way too much time training people on his team (and seems to have increased this effort after being denied a larger pay raise with his promotion). His team delivers results, but he spends a fortune on getting his team books, certifications, online training course, and on and on. We feel this is causing so many team members to only stay with his team for 2 years at the most, and then quit to work with another company or a direct competitor of ours. Our company is basically paying to train people that work for our competitor. All people on his team leave extremely positive comments on him when they quit, so we don't think he is being rude or mean to them.

His boss is retiring next year, and we can likely fire him then, but there is concern this will cause all those working behind him to quit. We need him to see that he is setting a bad precedent by doing this, and his goals of overtraining are bad for the company, and need him to stop this now, rather than in a year from now, so we can limit the damage. What is a good way to help him see he is hurting his own career by putting too much resources into training subordinates? He is based out of a remote office of 50 engineers/secretaries, as part of a larger company. It would be very expensive to replace the office, but we are ready to if necessary.

Part of the problem is the employee is qualified to teach others directly so they can take certain certification programs just by studying directly under him.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Nov 16 '20 at 18:32
  • How do you determine that the employees are overtrained? Is there a list with all required skills needed to perform and a list with additional -not needed- skills that are acquired in vain? How can you be sure that this is not required training? – Spyros K Nov 23 '20 at 8:05
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I think you need to readjust your view point on the matter. These employees aren't leaving because they were trained, they're leaving because they aren't being targeted for retention.

To solve this, you're going to cut the training program, possibly fire or reprimand their mentor, and are willing to rebuild an entire branch office.

I'm impressed, that's a strong commitment to a less trained, less desirable employee. I wonder how long it will take before your clients notice the changes.

  • Consider adjusting the staffing levels so you can staff fully trained employees at their proper wage or near it.
  • See if you can alter the training program into an employee expense, fully collected on termination, forgiven with one or two years service. Clearly show how much money will be invested to justify the contract.
  • Limit the number of people who qualify for training if necessary. Justify to your manager that it's a requirement to have more levels of skill that "expert"
  • Understand that if you aren't going to train them, then you'll probably have to hire people of their skill to keep the customers equally happy. This means paying more upfront, and not getting them for the two years they're getting trained.

People don't quit unless there are problems within the company. Your commitment to firing a person who's developing your employees, combined with your lack of a retention plan, deeply hint that there are problems that need to be addressed internally. There's two dozen better solutions than "replace the office"; and, you can't really know if his actions are out of spite because he's doing exactly what many would want him to do, make better employees.

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    Of course those employees could also be leaving for better money, is the op paying current rates? Like the answer though. – Solar Mike Nov 16 '20 at 5:44
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    @SolarMike I kind of doubt they're paying current rates, if they are losing employees due to "increased value added by training" – Edwin Buck Nov 16 '20 at 6:00
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    "What happens if we invest in developing our people and then they leave us? - What happens if we don't, and they stay?". Or quote from Sir Richard Branson: Train people well enough so they can leave. Treat them well enough so they don't want to. – rkeet Jan 18 at 15:25
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Sometimes an image says more than a 1000 words

A drawing titled as "Corporate Dilemma", showing two characters. One asks: "What if we train them and they leave?". The other replies: "What if we don't and they stay?".

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    They explicitly want the right side. It is nuts. – Matthew Gaiser Nov 16 '20 at 9:29
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    I hope they fire the guy. I want to see the next post about how this person ruined the company and wants to know how to bring this guy back and hopefully the rest of the engineers who quit with’em and if a 10% raise is enough – morbo Nov 16 '20 at 13:34
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    This is what immediately jumped into my mind when I read the question. – Seth R Nov 16 '20 at 15:22
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    @morbo We already have such questions like "How to discipline overeager engineer" or "why it's ok for developers to jump jobs" or "How do I prevent employees from either switching to competitors or opening their own business?". It's usually "those bad, pesky kids and their dog! They ruined everything" – SZCZERZO KŁY Nov 16 '20 at 17:07
  • I worked for a company that went with the right. Now they're owned by someone else – Old_Lamplighter Nov 16 '20 at 20:10
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You are certain that your problem is employee retention, you think that the cause is the manager.

Here are the facts:

  • You have a chief engineer that delivers results
  • He is well liked in the office
  • He trains his staff
  • You are losing employees

You need to get to the bottom of why staff are leaving, and why they are not using their hard earned skills for the benefit of your company.

2 years max is a short time to stay at a company that is willing to invest in you and train you, to see that you do well (these are positive things for an employee). What aren't you telling us?

Note. You also tagged the question with unprofessional-behaviour and discipline, I can't see any evidence for either of these tags as the question stands.

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    This really isn't an answer. It seems more like a comment and a request for more details. At best the "you need to get to the bottom of why staff are leaving" could suffice as an uninsightful answer. – Joel Etherton Nov 16 '20 at 15:10
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    @JoelEtherton I disagree - this is definitely an answer. "You're missing something, figure out why people are actually leaving" is actually exactly the point here. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Nov 16 '20 at 15:28
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To put your question in the form of a parable:

We have a group of mules that work hard and do good work, but we want to feed them less. How can we feed our mules less without them running away to somewhere they can be well fed? Can we feed them so little that they cannot run that far?

Firstly, I think his career is safe because of what he did.

He has created a whole pile of alumni who will fight to have him at their companies. Dozens, if not over 100+ glowing referrals are probably available to him. By doing so, he created a substantial insurance policy for himself and that policy was a wise one, given how you are behaving now. If I told my current boss that someone that was my best boss ever was on the market, they would get an interview very quickly and there are plenty of companies that have this kind of referral hiring. Unless his skillset is very specific, I bet he has good opportunities outside your company. Training employees for new opportunities isn't a move out of spite. It is meant to help open doors. Major consulting firms operate on this same principle.

Secondly, ambitious people are going to leave companies without opportunities, whether they are trained or not.

I doubt that he forced the training on these people. Rather, he probably hired people who were already ambitious, gave them training, and then they realized that your company was not a good choice for them long term. And reading this question I would agree, as your solution to turnover is wondering how you can limit the development of your employees without them all quitting, i.e. by trapping them there with weaker skills.

If this is truly your goal, I would fire him and have a plan to replace the office, as there is going to be an exodus anyway. There are bureaucratic steps you can put in place, like training sign-offs required from higher-level management, cutting the budget, and creating spending roadblocks, but at the end of the day, you are going to lose these people. In the replacement plan, focus on hiring less ambitious and less accomplished people as the best will not stay if treated like you want to treat employees. But understand that the results could easily suffer as well. You are basically seeking to achieve the same results with a team that has fewer skills. That often does not work.

But, have you considered fixing what it is that causes those star employees to leave? Has retention been examined at all?

EDIT:

Part of the problem is the employee is qualified to teach others directly so they can take certain certification programs just by studying directly under him.

This is a reason to take a particular job over other jobs. You are unlikely to be able to recruit as easily without this and probably not the same caliber of employee.

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    There is a more sinister effect on the careers of people who work for companies that try to hold back employees by siloing and/or not training them. It kills their careers. You end up being someone with 15 years of experience doing the first year of the work. Not learning, not advancing, is dying. – Malisbad Nov 16 '20 at 5:54
  • I can imagine the costs right now. A new office will probably be a disorganized office for a few months, if not longer. Meanwhile, all of these highly trained people, possibly led by the chief engineer that oversaw tons of customer contracts, would be working somewhere else. It wouldn't take much for a dissatisfied customer to start considering bringing back the team that made them happy. They wouldn't even have to poach customers, the customers would come to them. – Edwin Buck Nov 16 '20 at 5:57
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    @Malisbad oh yes, and the ambitious types will see that and make plans to abandon ship based on that. – Matthew Gaiser Nov 16 '20 at 5:59
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    @EdwinBuck I have seen a lot of strange questions on here. But someone asking how to get rid of good employees because others are leaving is a first. – Matthew Gaiser Nov 16 '20 at 6:05
  • @MatthewGaiser It's definitely one for the record books. And that they are willing to wait till other personnel leave to execute their plan shows that the spite is probably as much (or more) the OP's than the Chief Engineer's. – Edwin Buck Nov 16 '20 at 7:02
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Unless there's something you're not telling us, I don't see any evidence of "spite" or "insubordination" here. He's well-liked by his employees, delivers results, and is apparently a hard worker who's well-qualified for his position, so I really don't see what the problem is - he sounds like a good manager.

Think about it this way - if your competitor was giving their employees that amount of training, would their employees quit and come work for your company? If not, the problem isn't the amount of training that he's giving them.

People don't quit merely because they're qualified to work for a competitor - there's always some other reason for it. Personally, I'm scheduled to finish a masters degree in a few months; I'm sure I could easily get a job with one of my company's competitors, but I have no intention of doing so because I'm happy with my company and they treat me well.

You indicate that people say positive things about their manager when they quit, so he's evidently not mistreating his employees. That being said, what don't they say positive things about? I'm guessing that the reason they're quitting has much more to do with those things than the fact that they were trained.

Finally, in general, I'd caution you against assuming too much about what people are thinking. For example, do you actually know that he's doing that out of spite, or are you merely assuming that that's why he's doing that? If you're wrong about that, that could have serious consequences for the company due to the poor decisions you'd make as a result.

Also, you indicate that the behavior "seems to have increased" after being denied the raise. Does it seem to have increased, or did it actually increase? Again, it's a big difference.

This appears to be a classic example of the cognitive distortion of "mind reading", and could also be an example of the fundamental attribution error. Both can cause unnecessary conflict and poor decision-making in the workplace.

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Your psychopathic MBA thinking is exactly the reason why companies fail.

I'm willing to bet that you came into this company looking for ways to make a name for yourself, and of course the easiest way to do that is by cutting expenses, and the easiest way to do that is by cutting salaries. Never mind the negative consequences of cutting salaries, that's for someone else to worry about!

Except that problem came back to bite you, because people started noticing that juniors are leaving after two years. But you, being the brilliant MBA that you are, found a way to turn your failure into a weapon: by making it the fault of this engineer. Now you have the beginning of a case to fire him/her, thus lowering the salary bill even further - and you have the gall to ask us to try to help you twist what appears to be a very diligent performance by that person, into something negative so that you can accomplish your vile goals.

The problem is not this engineer.
The problem is not the people who leave the company after two years.
The problem is you.

Try looking in a mirror sometime.

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    This is 100% the correct answer. This community should not pander to cruel and terrible managers who come here expecting us to help them justify their awful decisions. – prieber Nov 18 '20 at 20:47
  • Hi, I have an MBA from a top-tier. This isn't what anyone is taught in mba school - we're taught to look at the problem from multiple angles, consider variables etc etc. It is true that many mbas go into PE etc and slash costs - but they also won't be so naive as to ask a question here about it. OP is 100% not an mba (or at least, not from a top-tier). – bharal Jan 18 at 12:47
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Limit the training budget and limit the amount of certifications the company will pay for within a given timespan.

The overtraining isn't his fault, it's whoever is analysing and allocating budget for it.

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    I don't see how forcing the manager to cut back on training would solve the fundamental problem of people leaving as soon as they're qualified to work elsewhere. – EJoshuaS - Reinstate Monica Nov 16 '20 at 14:30
  • @EJoshuaS-ReinstateMonica lots of ways, a personal example is a company had a great idea to motivate their engineers, they'd reimburse for any certifications from a list that engineers passed and up the pay by 2k. 3 weeks later I asked for reimbursement for 4 certs and was organising some more exams. Cost them thousands, didn't make me a better engineer or change the tasks I was working on. They then limited it to 2 certs a year. – Kilisi Nov 16 '20 at 14:52
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I'm going to try to be generous in my opinion of this situation and give you some actionable advice.

Your main problem seems to be that you think this engineer is "overtraining" his subordinates; he's wasting company money on training the subordinates don't need to do their jobs. So here's the question: Who pays for that training? Surely this employee isn't taking hundreds or thousands of dollars out if his own (or his subordinates') pockets to train them, he's expensing this training to the company. So the way to solve this "problem" of "overtraining" is that your company budget for training is too generous. If you cut this budget, or you put in tighter restrictions on what training is expensible, then maybe you can mitigate some of this.

Now I'm going to be less generous with your situation and tell you what I actually think:

You are firing your chief engineer, someone with intimate knowledge of your systems and practices, because you think he is putting too much effort into making his team knowledgable. This says to me that your company actively prefers to have less skilled employees. Why, pray tell, would a company actually prefer to have employees who are worse that their jobs than those who are better? The better each employee is, the better their job is and the better the company is. Your company should encourage your employees to be as good as they can be.

Then the problem is, skilled employees leave your company. Whenever an employee leaves the company, it's never the employees' problem. There's nothing wrong with the employee when the employee leaves the company; it's always a problem with the company. Your company is doing something that's causing these people to leave. If they are leaving in such numbers, the truth of the matter probably is that they didn't want to be there in the first place, and they are only there because they couldn't go anywhere else. Then as soon as they can go somewhere else, they do. Something about your company has the reputation that "skilled people don't work here". That's a problem for you, not a problem for your chief engineer. If you figure out why people are leaving, then you may be able to retain people who you're spending money on training instead of helping your competitors.

Part of the problem might be that your management seems to be incredibly vindictive. You didn't give this chief engineer a raise when you gave him a promotion (and increased his responsibilities), and that says a lot; he's now doing a more difficult job for the same pay, and that probably won't make him happy. You want to fire him for "overtraining" (there is no such thing) his subordinates, when in fact this is not his problem; he's giving them training and the company is allowing him to do so. This is a problem with the way your company handles training; either he is applying and receiving funding for training that's irrelevant (in which case you should look into why that's happening), or the subordinates are spending too much time on training and not enough time on deliverables (which might be something to look into and encourage work on deliverables), or else, the third option is nothing is actually wrong here and you're looking for a problem that doesn't exist.

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In addition to the other answers, I am going to concentrate on your near final statement:

Part of the problem is the employee is qualified to teach others directly so they can take certain certification programs just by studying directly under him.

Most certification preparatory courses are at least 40 hours, and usually in a one week chunk, so that the trainees are immersed in the training. In addition to the course work, there is often at least as much time needed in studying on your own.

So, now, instead of spending the training budget in the way it was meant to be, you want to force this over-performing Chief Engineer to also be a (or the) corporate certification prep trainer?

For ever hour of training there is at least twice as much time needed to prepare to train, then there is at least twice that needed to write the training materials.

So, for one certification, we have 40 hours to train, plus at least another 80 hours preparatory work, by the trainer, to set up each class. (This includes writing the course material, handouts, getting a room set up, etc.)

So, you're getting ready to require your Chief Engineer, in addition to their current responsibilities, spend at least 120 hours, per class, doing work that is most assuredly NOT in their current statement of work. Get ready to be turned down in that request, or to compensate that Chief Engineer fairly to take on the responsibilities of being, in addition to his other duties, a full time trainer.

Having the knowledge and expertise to be able to mentor underlings is not the same thing as being able to train a cert prep course.

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  • You know, I reread the question and the wording on this is a little odd... I wonder if the "problem" isn't that the employee is hiring out training instead of doing it in house, but the opposite... Because the employee is qualified to train he can keep training people in house even if the budget for external training is chopped. (Especially since other answers suggest cutting budget to manage training costs.) – user3067860 Nov 16 '20 at 15:27
  • hmm, so (possibly) the OP doesn't want the CE to train anyone at any time? I could see that interpretation. – CGCampbell Nov 16 '20 at 15:31
  • CPE is part of being a "professional" engineer and facilitating training - I know that some very senior civil engineers helped arrange for secondments for junior engineers to get chartered – Neuromancer Nov 16 '20 at 23:35
  • I'm not talking about mentoring or one-on-one training. That is par for the course. The OP mentions that (if I understood them correctly) they don't understand why the Chief Engineer isn't preparing his underlings for certifications themselves, instead of using up expensive training budget. I work for a large multinational corporation and they decided to save money by doing all training in-house. A one-day course is ok, on occasion. A week long prep course for a major certification takes almost a month, all told, of time from the trainer. This is a CE who is supposed to be engineering, – CGCampbell Nov 17 '20 at 11:37

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