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I'm a team lead. One of our senior engineers, Uli, is part of a team of about 7 people that were tasked with steering the company to increased profitability (lots of work involving automation). His team delivered, and senior management promised him a promotion to "chief engineer" (the next level up; we only have a few of these at the company, and it's basically the first step towards become a junior executive). For some reason, which is not being shared with me by senior management (it's implied it's lack of money, which makes no sense; we're very profitable) Uli was given the "promotion" in name only (i.e. "you're the 'DevOps chief engineer', not a 'Chief Engineer'"; so he got the extra work and responsibility, but not increase in benefits/pay, not even a new title or anything that could help him in a job hunt).

Uli requested a transfer to another team (which seems odd, given the reputation his current team earned for competence), and won't be back on our team for a year. I had to pull some strings to get him re-assigned back to his hold team in 3 months rather than 1 year, but he's told me it'll take time to "step in to his old work boots again" (he extremely complex work). He claims that he had to build a lot of rapport and relationships with the open source community to accomplish the type of work he did, and study a lot of training material in personal time. Now, all of a sudden, he can no longer continue with those ("not in my contract to build bridges with outside communities or study in free time"), and claims he'll be very rusty when he resumes in 3 months ("you should really assign those tough tasks to a chief engineer: they'll be able to handle it!"). How does one forget in 3 months what they spent 2 years inventing and desinging?

Should I continue to invite Uli back to the old team (i.e. continue with plans to have him back on our team in 3 months)? I'm wondering if I should try and recall the favors I called in to have him back on the team. I pushed to have him back on the team before I realized senior management ****ed him over.

My boss and senior management made this asymmetrical move to load him down with more work and stress, not me. He always "gets things done", no matter how difficult the task thrown at him (and I convey this to senior management for annual reviews), but he's refusing to discuss his shifty behavior (i.e. we both know he could ramp-up in seconds again). Even if he doesn't do the "mythical 10x engineer" work he previously did, he'd still be a good addition to the team as a "normal 9-5 guy", but... I'm worried that he might take out his frustration on the team or be a potential risk since he won't even have a straight discussion with me over why he's pissed off.

I've pointed out to senior management how complex the work is that he does, that it requires being able to work with people just as well as technology, that the extra work he does after-hours is key. I have no idea why they're apparently trying to provoke one of my top engineers and not explain why.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jan 18 at 13:20
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The bridge is burned. He will likely leave the company once he finds another job. Your company can be happy he is not in a financial position to walk out - I WOULD. The moment I am f**** over, I walk out and let my lawyers handle the rest. I do not work one second for people that betray me. Your word is your bond - and you just defaulted on purpose. BAD.

There is no reasonable way back - unless you assume management is willing to publicly apologize and hand over a SERIOUS SIGNIFICANT cheque for their mistake (let's say - next 2 levels up THE WHOLE BONUS FOR A YEAR OR THREE - which can go to a charity, just that level of "you f**** up and now you apologize"). That happens when companies, run by managers for whom everything is a spreadsheet, do not realize that actions have consequences.

Oh, and:

"I'm wondering if I should try and recall the favors I called in to have him back on the team." - IMO it is not wise to do this. You called in a favour, you got it. That is it. That you did not know what you wanted is your problem, not that of whoever granted you the favour.

And I would not expect him to get work done ANYWHERE now - he basically will fulfill his contract. ONLY. Regardless where. And look for another job.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Neo Jan 18 at 12:42
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The other answers are diplomatically answering OP's question and I mostly agree with TomTom's answer. However, I want to add a perspective that imho every good manager should see and preferably follow. Assuming you were Uli's manager when he got screwed over, there is only one sane thing to do:

  • Ask your boss to make the promotion happen along with a satisfying "we're sorry" bonus; use any force and favours you can muster in your position to make that happen and be open about it so your team sees you stand up for them.
  • If that does not happen, consider looking for another job

For one, you are supposed to protect your team; if one of your team members gets screwed over that hard and you don't do anything about it, that reflects terribly on you too. If I were in your team and see this, I'd trust not a single promise regarding promotions at all anymore. I'd make sure to get anything I want immediately or in very explicit writing. And since it doesn't make fun to work at such a place, I'd be looking for another job pretty soon. If your team does not see you as standing up for them, they just lost all respect for you. That might not show immediate and perhaps you're lucky and they are blind enough. Or perhaps they are just clever enough to not let anything show but start looking for another place soon. For team morale you just hit the trash can jackpot.

In addition, what about your own career? Do you have the special connection to higher management that is apparently needed to advance? If not, you cannot trust them either from this point on. With nothing. Not only might promises regarding promotions not come true, any other agreement, like getting more people or a certain project etc., could be thrown over on a whiff, too.

Regarding the 3-month reassignment:

You have already set things in motion - apparently again over the head of the already disgruntled engineer. Don't ask us what to do now, talk to the engineer! Give him the option to abort the transfer. Bow your head and ask him what he prefers and then make it happen for once.

And as a reminder for the future: Don't just try to get people assigned to your team - especially not using favours (i.e. playing politics) behind the person's back or without talking to them first. Uli might have wanted a transfer away to not be reminded daily about that fuckover and do his separate 9-5 job in quiet. But oh no, you just need him in his old position and thereby work against him, too. It's all about what you need. At least first think about what they want, too.

And for clarification as you seem to excuse yourself out of this in a way and wonder why Uli won't work 200% for you when someone else screwed him over: For Uli it makes no difference if you screwed him over or someone else. You represent the company to your "underlings"; the company screwed him over and he adjusts his work morale accordingly. It does not matter where in the company he works or to whom he directly reports. It's nothing personal, but only an idiot would have himself being snake-talked by a good cop into letting themselves be exploited by the higher ranking bad cops again.

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    This is the only answer that actually tells OP what they need to hear instead of just literally answering the question of "why is my employee unhappy?". OP needs to realize that they themselves got screwed over big time by upper management, because their precious team is now likely to gradually come apart. – TooTea Jan 18 at 10:31
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    100% agree. The OP also can't do their job because decisions they should be making are being made by people above them for reasons not being explained to the OP. Presumably, the OP wants to be in a situation where they can do their job and be successful and that's not happening where they are. A company that will screw over one competent employee will screw over any of them. – David Schwartz Jan 18 at 11:35
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First, a thing about favors: If you call one in and then want to revert that decision, that does not cancel each other out, it adds up. That's not zero favors, it's two now. So don't do that if you don't want to be in debt.

I think your best bet is talk to the disgruntled engineer in private. They will be on your team, so you may as well try your best. Tell them how you feel, that you think they should have been made Chief Engineer, but you don't know why senior management did what they did.

Tell them you are on their side if they need anything, good reports, specific training or anything else. Maybe management actually told them what they are missing to become Chief, maybe you are in a position to help them. Even if not, it cannot hurt to offer help.

If they say that a particular job is a for a Chief Engineer... well, do you have any guidelines on that? Maybe just give it to one.

Be prepared that this person may leave you regardless of what you do. But in the meantime, offer your support, tell him you are not upper management and try to bring them back into the team. I think they might be more inclined to do a job to help a fellow team member than do a job to make management happy. So bring them back into the team. That's your best bet.

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    It may be a good point by Uli that such job is really worth to be assigned to a Chief Engineer. In which case, I think the OP should request management to open a position to hire a new Chief Engineer to fill that. That can bring a new Chief Engineer from outside, although there are probably a good number of internal applications, as well... – Ángel Jan 18 at 1:47
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    @Ángel If I was denied a promised promotion, then found out that the position I was to be promoted to got filled by an outside hire, I would leave the company then and there. That would be extremely disrespectful. – Linny Jan 18 at 5:30
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    That first paragraph may be the most valuable insight on this whole page. – Sinjai Jan 18 at 8:09
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    @Sinjai Yes, English is not my native language, you are right about the can/may thing. Same word in my native language, so I sometimes confuse them. – nvoigt Jan 18 at 8:39
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    And if you want to mend the relationship - offer him a glowing recommendation on his way out. It's already too late for the current company, not for you on a personal standpoint. He could very well help you jump ship in the future. – Siorki Jan 18 at 13:18
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Proper Focus

It seems your focus is in the wrong place. You are entirely concerned about what happens to you. If you were an individual contributor, you could mostly get away with that. Once you take on management responsibilities, the picture changes. Your job is not just to deliver projects, but to some extent, manage people. As a team lead, you might not be considered (or consider yourself) a full manager, but you clearly have to wear a manager hat, so might as well start looking at the world from that viewpoint.

You have a retention problem, and it isn't the competition. It isn't a lazy, unmotivated employee. The problem is the management above you. Trying to ask how you should deal with the employee or somewhat irrelevant third parties you called favors in from is missing the point. The point is that your company is pretty likely to lose a valuable employee. Since that person was working on your team, you have a right to demand answers for why the company is screwing you over and making your job harder. More importantly, if they are willing to do that today, what are they going to do tomorrow? Are you going to let your bosses rip apart your team one by one through their incompetence? Because they will always start with the strongest workers, since those are the ones which are hardest to manage.

Communicate

As a people manager, you need to understand what's happening to your people. You need to make it clear to your boss that you can't do your job unless you get straight answers on why your best bro didn't get the promotion that he was "promised". And you should be asking yourself why you work for people who make empty promises, and what that says about your career future. The question I have is: "Did you go to bat for Uli?" Because if you were my team lead, and you just sat passively while the rest of management screwed me over, I wouldn't want to come back to your team either.

At no point did you say: "And then I asked my boss and skip level for a meeting where I laid out the value that Uli provides to the team and why this promotion makes sense, not only for Uli's career development, but for the credibility of management itself. When my other ambitious and aspiring peeps see how the company makes empty promises and fails to promote obviously talented strong contributors, it undermines the authority of the entire management org. This makes it really hard for me to answer my team when they ask why they should stick with me rather than head towards greener pastures."

If management is going to trust you to lead a team, then they should trust you with straight answers on why they won't offer a promised promotion. And if they can't trust you with information that is obviously hindering your ability to deliver, then you should question whether you are in the right role, on the right team, or working for the right company. You should demand that information, demand some transparency, and demand some accountability for the mess they made and then dumped on you.

Take Action

It's possible that you can help them understand the severity of their mistake, and even suggest a compromise solution that lets everyone win. But you can't do that unless you understand the whole picture. If you aren't willing to go to bat for Uli, then you don't deserve his whole-hearted efforts on your team, regardless of what price you paid to get him back. And if you want him back that badly, then make good on your ante by going to bat for him. If he sees that you are in his corner, and especially if you get results for him, then I'm sure that will improve your standing with Uli and the rest of the team. There's risk involved, for sure. But the alternative is to just get used and abused by your management. That's always an easy fallback plan.

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    The question does seem to have been written from a seemingly selfish perspective, that's a good point. – Sinjai Jan 18 at 8:48
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Your company made a promise to this engineer that if he worked hard he would get promoted. He worked hard and the company screwed him by breaking their promise. And now you are surprised that he is no longer willing to work hard?

Seems like the Peter Principle was written about your company's management, including you.

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  • Peter's principle is about getting promoted as a reward for good work until you're just 1 level higher than your competence... OP's case is the perfect example of Dilbert's principle: good ones are kept at their level, while incompetent people get promoted to fill useless position where they shouldn't be able to do much damage – Laurent S. Jan 22 at 13:49
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Your post is almost painful for me to read since I was Uli and you could be my ex boss.

After working my ass off and hearing repeatedly and from different sources that my promotion was imminent, when my appraisal really came I was told I was "too dedicated", "took my job too seriously" and "worked too much" and similar funny stuff. My boss, who had hinted at my promotion several times before, acted surprised when I asked them about it. He said that "maybe in a year, but even then it is not going to be easy".

When I started to act like Uli, i.e. stick to my oficial work times, do what I'm paid for and not more, I was strongly criticized for "my odd behavior".

Finding a much better paying position took me less than a month in the mid of the covid crisis.

A fun fact: when I told my team members that I quit, they told me to take them with me. I wasn't able to, but the best of them left just a few weeks after me, found a much better job too.

I know this doesn't answer your question directly, but it does show how "Uli" is probably feeling.

Treat people fairly or don't expect any sense of loyalty. "Uli" is not the problem here. Try to make it worthwhile for them but they probably won't stay anyway.

P.S. And the worst thing is: I really loved that job.

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I'm a team lead. One of our senior engineers, Uli, is part of a team of about 7 people that were tasked with steering the company to increased profitability (lots of work involving automation). His team delivered, and senior management promised him a promotion to "chief engineer" (the next level up; we only have a few of these at the company, and it's basically the first step towards become a junior executive).

So you had a brilliant employee, churning out work several levels above his paygrade, promised him a promotion, and more money. So what happened?

For some reason, which is not being shared with me by senior management (it's implied it's lack of money, which makes no sense; we're very profitable) Uli was given the "promotion" in name only (i.e. "you're the 'DevOps chief engineer', not a 'Chief Engineer'"; so he got the extra work and responsibility, but not increase in benefits/pay, not even a new title or anything that could help him in a job hunt).

You screwed him out of the money, and the promotion, and dead-ended his career path

Uli requested a transfer to another team (which seems odd, given the reputation his current team earned for competence), and won't be back on our team for a year.

You think it's odd for an employee to not want to stay with the team that screwed him? I see part of the problem right here

I had to pull some strings to get him re-assigned back to his hold team in 3 months rather than 1 year.

So, you screwed him a second time by pulling him back into the situation he wanted out of

But he's told me it'll take time to "step in to his old work boots again" (he extremely complex work).

Translation. "you screwed me, so I'm going to make you squirm a bit, but give you an opportunity to correct your mistake"

He claims that he had to build a lot of rapport and relationships with the open source community to accomplish the type of work he did, and study a lot of training material in personal time.

Tanslation "I busted my butt both on the job and off to show my worth, and I'm letting you know how valuable I am"

Now, all of a sudden, he can no longer continue with those ("not in my contract to build bridges with outside communities or study in free time"), and claims he'll be very rusty when he resumes in 3 months ("you should really assign those tough tasks to a chief engineer: they'll be able to handle it!").

You screwed him over, he's not going to work out of title. That's him hitting you with a "clue-by-four" saying "No work without compensation"

How does one forget in 3 months what they spent 2 years inventing and desinging?

He didn't, and he's being slighly less subtle than a hand grenade in letting you know that you screwed him, so he's doing his job, and not one bit more

Should I continue to invite Uli back to the old team (i.e. continue with plans to have him back on our team in 3 months)? I'm wondering if I should try and recall the favors I called in to have him back on the team. I pushed to have him back on the team before I realized senior management ****ed him over.

You asked for him, you've got him. You should have gone to Uli first, and asked instead of yanking him around like a toddler grasping for his favorite toy. You're as bad as senior management here because YOU DID NOT ASK HIM HIS OPINION.

My boss and senior management made this asymmetrical move to load him down with more work and stress, not me. He always "gets things done", no matter how difficult the task thrown at him.

You're still confused as to why he's mad enough to chew nails, and spit screws?

but he's refusing to discuss his shifty behavior (i.e. we both know he could ramp-up in seconds again).

Nothing shifty about it, he's being outright blatant

Even if he doesn't do the "mythical 10x engineer" work he previously did, he'd still be a good addition to the team as a "normal 9-5 guy", but... I'm worried that he might take out his frustration on the team or be a potential risk since he won't even have a straight discussion with me over why he's pissed off.

Goodwill goes both ways, you're showing none on your end. He literally has no incentive to do anything but put in the bare minimum until he moves on, and you are not helping.

I've pointed out to senior management how complex the work is that he does, that it requires being able to work with people just as well as technology, that the extra work he does after-hours is key. I have no idea why they're apparently trying to provoke one of my top engineers and not explain why.

They think if they can stymie him, he won't be able to move on. Don't help them. Update your resume, because you're being set up to fail.

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What I suggest is honesty.

As an individual contributor I had plenty of promised which were unkept, and it is so humiliating to wait for months and after months just be brushed off, with a non-satisfactory excuse.

The most humiliating one was after over 6 months of being promised a raise, and then only receiving the regular adjustment I get every year - Being told that nobody would pay me what I'm asking, so I got a job that paid me what I asked for (and I had higher offers).

As a leader my policy is always honesty. First of all, I always checked with senior management why the request was denied, and then I came to the employee and said the truth, and also said that I felt that they deserved it (otherwise I wouldn't have forwarded their request).

The follow-up is that I understand their frustration and I hope they would remain in my team.

People need to be seen, and also feel that they are seen.

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None of what the guy tells you is true. It is his way of getting revenge and sticking it to "them", and that may or may not include you.

The answer you quote is very telling. He says that you should get a "senior engineer" to do it - the position he was supposed to be promoted to but denied. It doesn't get more "here, take a clue" than that.

From his perspective, he got tricked and betrayed, and gave the company a lot of extra work and time - and they didn't deliver their part of the deal.

Since you are not in a position to fix that, there is nothing you can do. Sure, you can talk him down a bit, maybe. You might be able to get him to understand that "they" does not include you - but that's the best.

Unlike other answers, I don't think this can be fixed anymore. Even if upper management sees the light and finally delivers, that trust has been destroyed, that relation soiled.

To save you and the team, what you should do is start the hiring process for his replacement. He will either walk, or continue to work with a toxic attitude and low performance, because his motivation is shot. Sooner or later, he will have to be replaced, and the sooner you start searching, the larger the time period in which he can train his replacement. You don't have to label it "replacement", at least until he hands in his resignation papers. You can call it "enlarging the team" or whatever.

You should also ensure that future communication regarding promotions, bonuses and other promises from the company goes through you so you get an early warning of the next repetition. Things like this rarely happen only once in a company.

You might also consider looking for a new job yourself. If the company does that to this guy, they can do it to you, too.

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  • I think you may be slightly shooting across the bow instead of scoring a direct with your answer. The OP's credibility with the team, if he does nothing, will be in the shitter. He should very much so stand up for the guy that got screwed over, even if that particular case amounts to nothing for the engineer it will show the team there's a "team lead" instead of a "my lead". Also, I think you're wrong about "low performance" when someone fulfills their contract to the letter, because that's literally what they're paid for. Anything else is a bonus for the company. – rkeet Jan 18 at 15:19
  • @rkeet yes, I mean "low" compared to their previous work. A smart guy will do exactly the work he is required to do by contract and nothing else, while looking for another job. You are also right in pointing out that for other reasons, making a token effort can be beneficial. – Tom Jan 18 at 15:24

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