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We onboarded a new senior guy recently for a project manager type of role. Based on his past experience and profile/portfolio of work, he is very good. He has handled complex jobs at large orgs in the past.

During the interviews, he was not very "chatty" which is fine. He spoke in measured/considered sentences, and I assumed that was his style.

After starting working, it seems more and more that he actually has difficulties with spoken English. After a recent brainstorming session, he was expected to work on a high level deliverable (like a project plan for example) based on the items discussed in the group session. About a third of the items in his project plan were things never even spoken about in the meeting. Most of these are things that are actually not supposed to be part of the product. They are tangentially related (in the sense that there will be a handoff to a third party for further processing) but our product has absolutely nothing to do with it. For example, suppose our product is a product/price comparison site, the actual Action (ecommerce) happens on the ecommerce websites. So the (our) comparison product really does not need to concern itself with things like the cart, order delivery, etc.

Yet, his project plan includes timelines for working on these ecommerce features. So it is obvious that there is significant miscommunication. He hasn't yet spoken much in the couple of sessions he was on - because the project is new to him, and he was expected to mostly listen the first couple of meetings. In one on one calls however, he seems to not have understood much of what is being spoken about unless it is very very clearly laid out.

My hunch is that he was successfully handling the large orgs (including some in the US) because many things are written down clearly and there are people whose job it is to document things. Since this is a small team building new products, not everything is documented in full, and it won't be. We frequently brainstorm on new ideas and the only "notes" or "minutes" of these meetings are very brief and bullet points. Anyone who's been in the meeting, if they were paying attention and participating, will be able to make sense of these notes. These notes are shared with all participants.

Since this is a very senior guy, language training is out of the question. The problem is not the language, it is verbal realtime communication. I also doubt he will readily accept his lack of spoken communication skills. The issue hasn't yet been discussed with him.

I am unsure about letting him go because he is committed and hardworking. But he is also very senior, which means sooner than later he will have to take on leadership/management roles. If it were a routine project, it might have been fine. But this involves creating new things from scratch, so oral communication is crucial.

The longer he continues, the harder it will be to fire him. I am almost sure this difficulty in communication will be a long term detriment. He can be assigned a more back-office supervisory kinda role, but the optics of that might cause resentment after another new hire is brought in to do what he expected to be doing.

What are good ways of looking at this problem and addressing it?

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    @DarkCygnus Yes, notes are editable by all during the meeting and available for all to see afterwards
    – dakini
    Apr 29 at 19:52
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    which means sooner than later he will have to take on leadership/management roles - Why? Just because you are senior doesn't mean you have to go into management. Some people are quite happy stay as individual contributors.
    – Seth R
    Apr 29 at 20:12
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    Re: "Just because you are senior doesn't mean you have to go into management", speaking as an individual contributor who has so far avoided management, it's still expected that a senior employee is able to communicate information clearly, to receive information both in written form and verbally, and to reach out if they have questions or are unsure about something. "Not being in management" does not mean "does not have to communicate."
    – larsks
    Apr 29 at 20:16
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    Is the language you are using his native language? Apr 29 at 20:46
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    @JoeStrazzere Yes I am their boss. Yes I was also closely involved in the recruiting. And also yes, we have altered the recruitment process. What we do now is give a problem statement and interviewees can take their time (upto 2 days, upto a week by special request) to figure out potential solutions and present and brainstorm those. And throughout the process we pay close attention to how well they comprehend and communicate (and also how they think from first principles). And this has allowed us to eliminate two highly qualified and accomplished candidates after the second conversation.
    – dakini
    Apr 30 at 10:45

4 Answers 4

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The first thing you should do is to have a 1:1 with this person and explain what the problem is that you've noticed. Try to do it in as least an accusatory manner as you can. Don't be like "you're not performing well because..." or something like that. Something like "I've noticed you've been having difficulties, because (XYZ reasons). Is there anything I can do to help?". Try to get to the bottom of these issues. Note that, in some cultures, it is frowned upon to admit weakness, so you may have to dig harder than you would like to get to the root of the problem, but it's something you have to do anyway. Don't accept wishy-washy (e.g. "don't worry about it, I can handle it") as an answer. Let him know you're trying to be his friend and help him resolve his issue, not trying to attack him or be discriminatory in some way.

After he tells you what his problem is, then you can determine how to address it. If it turns out to be a language barrier issue, you will have to make a decision of whether to help him overcome the challenge or not. Imo, either option is a valid one, given the resources you have. As a small company, it may be outside of your power/resources to send this person for remedial English studies, which may ultimately mean you need to terminate him. Imo this is a reasonable course of action if necessary. Being able to communicate and be communicated with in an understandable way is as core of a responsibility of an employee as any other responsibility, and being unable to perform one's responsibilities is grounds for termination.

However, before you jump the gun and assume anything, talk to the guy first and determine the source of the difficulty. Perhaps it's not what you think it is and it is something that can be dealt with in a more employment-friendly manner, so start with that.

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  • Yeah, this needs a good amount of patience and maturity.
    – dakini
    May 3 at 16:26
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He hasn't yet spoken much in the couple of sessions he was on - because the project is new to him, and he was expected to mostly listen the first couple of meetings.

So you've made it clear to him that his role in the first few meetings was to listen and learn? You're telling us you expect more from him, have you told him?

In one on one calls however, he seems to not have understood much of what is being spoken about unless it is very very clearly laid out.

Is he coming from a total different domain? If so, anyone would have trouble understanding what's going on for a while. It's called ramp up time for a reason. Have you talked to him about this difference yet?

We frequently brainstorm on new ideas and the only "notes" or "minutes" of these meetings are very brief and bullet points. Anyone who's been in the meeting, if they were paying attention and participating, will be able to make sense of these notes.

Is he used to a written first culture? Is your culture a spoken first? Have you talked to him about this yet?

As part of the hiring team, you're invested in his success now. His failure to get up to speed may reflect badly on you. Just hiring someone and expecting that they understand everyone and everything in the company is non-sense.

You are responsible to get him up to speed now.

Talk to him more. Ask him about his preferred communication styles. Have lunch with him. Learn about his strengths. Be his friend. He clearly can get things done given the right tools. Give him the tools!

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  • "Have lunch with him. Learn about his strengths. Be his friend" - handholding a senior hire? Here I have a junior I was expecting him to mentor.
    – dakini
    Apr 30 at 4:04
  • @Ahron What's the difference in your mind between hand-holding and on-boarding? I'd be pretty upset if you hired me an expected me to just perfectly understand the team, the process, and the expectations without any help at all. May 2 at 19:23
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Anyone who's been in the meeting, if they were paying attention and participating, will be able to make sense of these notes

This is a pretty arrogant statement. This would be true for people who have been around in company already, and who have been involved in discussions prior to the guy showing up. You have made it pretty clear that he came from an environment where if decisions on features weren't written down, he didn't have any responsibility to act upon them. He's not a designer. It's not his responsibility to create consensus on which of these random ideas you want to keep or not keep. That's a product manager's responsibility. After features for the product are prioritized, that's the point where you're supposed to be handing off to this guy.

I can't vouch for the e-commerce things. But I don't think you defined this role well enough before you interviewed people, which is another common problem with startups trying to do everything quick and dirty.

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It could be that it is his communication style to listen carefully to other people, and only state his opinion when he feels that he is absolutely sure that his idea is a very good one, error-proof, and 100% beneficial to the company. This may be due to his culture, conservative working style, or his familiarity with the way his former company works.

So, if you tell him that your company is a startup environment where everyone is expected to brainstorm and throw in new ideas for new designs even though their ideas may not be 100% efficient in the beginning. There are processes to refine ideas and suggestions to come up with a final good design.

If he understands the importance of brainstorming at your company, hopefully, he can improve his communication styles to improve his job performances.


If that does not work, unfortunately, you may have to set up an 1:1 meeting with him to formally address the need to improve his communication styles. This is just a business decision.

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    The issue isn't the communication (or lack thereof), it's that the employee is told A and he understands B, where A and B are only tangentially related. It's not possible to be productive in such an environment.
    – Ertai87
    Apr 29 at 20:43

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