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I am a senior individual (i.e. hiring and firing power) in a large tech company. The job is stressful, though we actually pay well, which makes this place attractive to younger engineers.

One team that I help manage is having an issue with a junior-to-intermediate level engineer. We basically had planning meeting with 3 teams involved, and leads for the teams were having a debate on responsibilities and budgets for major components in a shared project. Our problem engineer, let's call him Zorp, advocated the the 2 other teams just go with what his own boss proposed, which drew the ire and scorn of other teams (and even some sighs from people on his own team, who weren't sold on their own boss's plan).

Zorp took it upon himself to reach out to the leads for these other teams later that day, schedule one-on-one meetings with each lead under false pretenses. Apparently he felt it was appropriate to schedule vaguely defined meeting invites with the tech leads, who are already very busy, and tell them that they should just do what his boss wants to do, for the sake of the project and the company, and then goes into some speech on how the tech leads could learn how to communicate and work better with others, like he's their manager or personal counsellor: very offputting. In both cases, the leads attempted to let him off easy and end the meeting early, but he wouldn't take the hint, and was pressing hard to convince the leads that he was right. These leads outrank Zorp by several levels, and are, less than impressed with his conduct. They are intelligent, courteous, and conscientious people, and do not deserve such disrespect.

Now, our company puts particular emphasis on diversity of backgrounds, which I find to be common in the tech industry, and I find to be a good thing in general. However, Zorp's actions strike me as extremely inappropriate. If a direct report of mine pulled that crap, I'd have given them 2 of their 3 strikes there and then, and his own direct manager is seriously considering giving 1 strike himself, which I might override and escalate to 2 strikes or even a firing.

To my question: is this sort of behavior at all common among younger engineers and students, or is this some sort of misguided approach to handling interpersonal conflict that is taught in schools these days? I've already had Zorp's manager go over this issue with Zorp, but our young Zorp seems to feel this behavior is "mostly appropriate". I don't want to leave someone jobless and without severance or a health care plan right before Christmas, especially with an already crazy and saturated job market for tech workers, but unless there's a particularly compelling reason I'm just not seeing here to justify Zorp's actions and idiosyncrasies, I'll have to simply put him on a PIP so we can fire him without severance by the holidays. We can't have a junior engineer of moderate productivity and talent riling up our leads and principal engineers.


Updated:

The issue resolved itself. Zorp resigned mid-way through a discussion involving him, his manager, and myself. Apparently he took offence at being "lectured". So, I offered him "garden leave", cut his check for 2 weeks plus/minus vacation pay overage/deficit, and he tries to withdraw his resignation when he realizes the months of severance payout doesn't apply to voluntary resignation. Had to get security to bring him down to the lobby, and paid for a cab out of pocket just to get the ordeal over with.

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    Based on the tone of your post I feel like you've already made up your mind. Dec 1, 2022 at 2:45
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    "I'll have to simply put him on a PIP". You are not his manager. Can you do that ? Dec 1, 2022 at 3:42
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    This sounds like they've made one mistake, and now you're ready to get the PIP out? Dec 1, 2022 at 7:10
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    "requests for 'days to cry'" -- I hope you are not referring to something like bereavement? Because you could totally word bereavement that way. Also assuming you have PTO does it really matter what the request for a day off is as long as it uses the PTO? I find it hard to believe you have all these strange requests this frequently unless there are some serious issues with your hiring process.
    – Kupo
    Dec 1, 2022 at 14:37
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    This reads more as a rant rather than a legitimate question. What on earth do other associates inappropriate requests have anything to do with the problem in question?
    – user48276
    Dec 1, 2022 at 14:46

9 Answers 9

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is this sort of behavior at all common among younger engineers and students, or is this some sort of misguided approach to handling interpersonal conflict that is taught in schools these days?

It's a little of both. I suggest reading https://www.thecoddling.com/ (no affiliation). These days, specifically American colleges focus a lot more on the "student experience" and less on academics, job skills and employability. They are NOT doing the students a favor.

Two of the more interesting examples I've seen an interviews

  • A professor at a well known university was an excellent communicator, but was seriously lacking technical knowledge of the the class they were actually teaching. Think of a math professor who can speak eloquently about the benefits of math to society, but can't do basic algebra.
  • We interviewed a PhD student who turned out to be a one-trick pony. No harm, no foul. However, when checking in at the end of the day they bitterly complained "How dare we ask them questions outside of their direct field of expertise. They felt personally offended"

Needless to say we didn't proceed with these candidates and that's actually your best line of defense going forward. Make sure you tighten up your interview processes to weed out the worst cases of entitlement and self-centeredness BEFORE you make an offer. Good options are "Give me a specific example of how you handled a conflict" "Tell me about a time you had to deal with adversity".

So what to do about Zorp:

  • I think you and/or their direct manager need to sit them down for a serious conversation
  • Give them a chance to explain (or hang) themselves: "Why do you feel that was appropriate?" "Why do you think you are better qualified to choose a course of action then a group of highly experienced and respected technical leads?"
  • Then read them the law of the land in no uncertain terms.

Take you cues from there: If they are starting to understand and show signs of actual insights and willingness to accept a mistake and learn from it, you can put a coaching plan together to work the problem. If they are stubborn or stand-offish, you probably should go ahead with the PIP. Not because setting up the meetings was a fireable offense in itself, but because the personality and attitude will prevent them from being successful at your company and in that case it's better for all parties to get it over with quickly.

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    "Looks like I get to step in and "lay down the law" tomorrow." I would seriously suggest not doing this as it undermines Zorp's manager. Empower Zorp's manager to lay down the law, don't do it yourself. Dec 1, 2022 at 5:36
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    @PhilipKendall: Not necessarily. You can play this as good cop/bad cop. Grandboss can be a little rougher so boss can maintain at least a cordial relationship for the day to day business.
    – Hilmar
    Dec 1, 2022 at 7:28
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    The issue resolved itself. Zorp resigned mid-way through a discussion involving him, his manager, and myself. Apparently he took offence at being "lectured". So, I offered him "garden leave", cut his check for 2 weeks plus/minus vacation pay overage/deficit, and he tries to withdraw his resignation when he realizes the months of severance payout doesn't apply to voluntary resignation. Had to get security to bring him down to the lobby, and paid for a cab out of pocket just to get the ordeal over with.
    – Alois
    Dec 1, 2022 at 15:24
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    @Alois Also, I can understand being offended by something, but the ability to not let people know when you are offended, especially when it could work against you, seems to be in decline. It seems like a basic part of professionalism to me.
    – user30748
    Dec 1, 2022 at 15:54
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    Old people who're sad about their lives have always moaned about the young being idle, while failing to note just how entitled they were. And the person described here is far from feckless. People came out of uni 30 or 50 years ago expecting a job for life, a good salary, a house, a car, and now they're likely to get none of that. Students are far more focused on value for money now because they need to get a good education if they want a chance at life. Most college courses are far more focused on real life than 50 years ago, and far more people are studying vocational courses now.
    – Stuart F
    Dec 5, 2022 at 12:50
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This is quite the tricky issue.

Firstly, I break no bread with some of the things you mentioned such as Safe Spaces, days to Cry, asking to break Corp IT policy etc.

However, I feel the need to play a little Devil's advocate for young Zorp, because in many ways, I've been Zorp and pulled Rank that I didn't have and gotten my fingers metaphorically whacked. Those experiences have helped me in knowing both the location of the line and how far I can push it before it breaks.

So, to advocate for Mr Zorp:

1: He clearly has initiative. Regardless of how appropriate it may or may not have been, the drive to get stuff done and to seek out ways to achieve a desired outcome are highly desirable.

2: He's not afraid to speak up and challenge on an issue. Lord knows this is a frustrating one when it's not carefully honed with experience, however if everyone is hurtling towards the Cliff, having the minerals to say 'You are all being Idiots' is something highly valued.

3: He's a Team player... Of Sorts. Hear me out here - The guy has a solution from his manager, that he thinks will work. Whether that is genuine belief in the solution or simply wanting to brown-nose his Manager, I'm not sure - but my gut feel is that because this is a Technical role and you've mentioned he didn't get hints, I'm picking that he's not Mr Office Politics - so likely the former. And so, as a good team player, he's trying to get the Team to make the game winning play.

That's my Advocacy for him, because I've done things similar and I've learnt.

What should you do with him?

The first thing is that you need to reprimand him, Significantly. If Mr Zorp has the character traits that I think he does (Engineer, bad at social cues, single-minded focus on an issue - do I need to elaborate?) - then you need to give him an unequivocal 'This is not, nor will it ever be acceptable. You do not do X, you do not do Y, you do not do Z' - This needs to be done with absoluteness, in Binary, with zero grey area.

You need to carve off a range of actions that are never acceptable. You also need to make it clear what the consequences of repeat offending will be: "If I hear that you have done this again, I will consider this Gross Insubordination and fire you on the spot" (insert correct justification), again, think binary - there is no room for negotiation, automatic firing if X, Y or Z conditions are matched.

Once done, that is the Stick part of your actions. I will say that this element is probably the most important, because you need to make sure that there is zero ambiguity in just how badly he screwed up.

Now for the Carrot. With his Manager, you need to give him a set of rules and or guidelines so that should he find himself in a similar position where he is thinking about taking initiative on his own, he has something to refer to, to help ensure he doesn't piss people off

Things like: "Any meeting requests you want to schedule must first be run by and approved by your Manager, until further notice" Basically, each area where he fu-bar'd needs it's own set of rules, so that he can keep on the straight and narrow.

Then the ball is in his court, he's been told what is not acceptable, what to do if he's confused, a set of guidelines and the ultimate consequence.

If Mr Zorp is like me, he'll be salty about it, but he'll learn and become a valued member of your team (as well as the occasional PiTA - can't have an Omlette without breaking an Egg).

If not, then perhaps your company isn't the environment for him to learn to refine these character traits.

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    I get where you are coming from, and agree with virtually everything else in your post, but would not consider "your meeting requests will be micromanaged now" a Carrot, in the sense that it is in no way rewarding those positive traits that he exhibited. Rather, it is just an adjustment of the usual process "you can freely schedule meetings with other people". It at least needs to be presented as "We get you are trying to change things, and this is how we are helping you to do that without stepping on people's toes too much". Dec 1, 2022 at 8:24
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    So, true story - once, when I was new into the Corporate world, I used 'Reply All' to Banter a bit too much, since some of the more senior staff did... I got told that I no longer could use Reply All, in hindsight - it was more about knowing when and where banter was appropriate and to whom. That helped teach me where the limits of acceptable behavior was - and so likewise, with scheduling meetings, Zorp needs a similar lesson - but perhaps there are other options available. Dec 1, 2022 at 9:00
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    "I feel the need to play a little Devil's advocate" -- TheDemonLord
    – user30748
    Dec 1, 2022 at 15:43
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    I really like this. You made some good points. Some of what you wrote reads a little like hinting as Aspergers / Autism spectrum, not sure if that was intentional (we do have a lot of overlap with some of the typical traits in tech people.) Dec 11, 2022 at 13:06
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    @SybillePeters It was definitely intentional, at a certain level of IT being on one of the Spectrums is practically a Job requirement. I've made that joke and observation often (and include myself in it - Dyspraxia fo lyfe yo!) Dec 13, 2022 at 23:47
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I wouldn't give this person strikes. I'd give them feedback. Not all feedback has to be related to "this is a performance issue and repeated instances will result in further disciplonary action up to and including termination." Feedback is best given as a gift, not as a hammer. Do it because they need it, and you want to see them succeed, because you care about them as a person and about the success of the organization.

Anyone can do this (assuming they have the skills; this frankly is not a strong point of the skill sets of most coders).

"Xorp, it's great you are taking the initiative to get things done, but this is not how things get done here. People understand the issue and have different opinions. As the FNG (Freaking New Guy) you should probably not assume that your opinion is the one that will hold sway. This company is filled with smart people. Keep this up and none of them will talk to you."

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    I feel this is the right answer, and most of the beahviours OP considers "unprofessional/inappropriate", are not really unprofessional, they are inappropriate in their company. There are many companies nowadays that love a flat structure. OP also sounds generally annyed by the younger generation which is a bit unfair to Zorp, who was not the one requesting to use Steam
    – rosysnake
    Dec 1, 2022 at 15:13
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Can't it all be written off as a laughing matter? To me it sounds like an absolute hoot!

You are emphatic that there is considerable distance in age and seniority; so more than enough that sensible people would not be disturbed by this whole episode. Even if his arguments were ridiculous and quite misconceived, that would only make the whole affair more amusing.

Also, was there any merit at all, either in his arguments and advice, or in the performance and delivery?

Presumably the position he is fighting for cannot be totally unfounded - after all, his boss is for the same idea! Also, his involvement in meetings as an advocate in the first place, seems to have been legitimate (otherwise what was he doing there?), even if the follow-ups were pushing too far.

You also say meetings were arranged "under false pretenses", but there's certainly a difference between "vagueness" (especially just a single instance of it) and downright falsehood.

You really could deal with this by simply saying there firstly needs to be stronger coordination with his manager in future, and secondly that any meeting requests with others must have a clear agenda.

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I have looked at this question and I fear that young Zorp was setup to fail.

I knew a manager who did something repeatedly over many years. They would gather a couple of young employees and tell them a tale: I had an idea to do X. He knows that nobody in the organization is doing X. Nobody had even thought of doing X. If we do X, we will attract all kinds of attention, and the project will win awards. But most important they are probably the only people in the organization with the skill set to do the work. It is only through his genius that he hired them and found the perfect thing for them to succeed.

The truth was that somebody was already doing X and their project was very successful. The manager wanted to take over the task and steal their budget so he could grow his footprint.

The young engineers would eventually find the other team. But the manager had an answer: the other team isn't doing it right. He would then send the young engineers to spy on the other team to find out exactly what they were doing. Every time it ended in the young engineers clashing with the other team, because they believed they were the only one who could do the job and the other team was incompetent. They did everything their boss wanted them to do.

The manager's boss loved this aggressiveness. They both considered the young engineers expendable. If they left because of the incident there was no great concern. Lather rinse repeat.

The clue was here:

Our problem engineer, let's call him Zorp, advocated the the 2 other teams just go with what his own boss proposed, which drew the ire and scorn of other teams (and even some sighs from people on his own team, who weren't sold on their own boss's plan).

Where was Zorp's manager? They are responsible to the company to not let this spin out of control. They are responsible to the employee to not let them get into this situation.

It might be time for the organization to make sure they aren't the problem.

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As a former hiring manager and current senior engineer of 25 years, I have run into a few Zorps in my day. Personally, I don't suffer fools and if he was to approach me with these antics I would have put him in his place and proceeded to ignore his future meeting requests as well as make a complaint to his manager. If I were in a supervisory role above him, I most certainly would write him up and provide however many strikes he has earned. I can appreciate the empathy of not wanting to see someone terminated but that isn't really your problem. I once took some supervisory training and the instructor told us that you never need to fire anyone... they choose to fire themselves and it sounds like Zorp is making that choice for himself. The truth is that being fired may be the best thing for him since life is a cruel tutor and it might aid in changing his outlook on his place in the world and could lead to a more fruitful and conflict-free career. Otherwise, he will continue to be emboldened by the lack of consequences and continue to think that this behavior is acceptable and then bounce from job to job always wondering why everyone ELSE is a jerk. Stick to the facts, be professional, lay down the law and let the chips fall where they may.

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    Thank you. I'll think over this.
    – Alois
    Dec 1, 2022 at 3:21
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    Come on, I agree with the gist of the answer, but "the instructor told us that you never need to fire anyone... they choose to fire themselves" is hogwash for the faint of heart. The manager fires the person. This is basic logic and grammar. Yes, the fired person is most likely responsible for being fired, but one doesn't fire oneself.
    – LoremIpsum
    Dec 1, 2022 at 21:05
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    @LoremIpsum I can add one caveat to that... lay offs. In that case, the employee has probably done nothing wrong to deserve the termination. Aside from that, I'm sorry but you're completely wrong. Employees choose to either follow policy or they don't. When they choose to not follow policy then they choose the consequences of their actions. THEY fire themselves... it is simply the manager that makes it official but it was the employee who chose to violate policies and fire themselves.
    – rhoonah
    Dec 2, 2022 at 12:41
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    @rhoonah, the confusion in your approach is that it is the employer who has chosen to set those rules, it is the employer who has chosen a scheme of punishments for their violation, it is the employer who chooses whether there has been a violation, and it is the employer who chooses to apply the punishment in the end. If the employee had the real control, then they would simply choose to misbehave and choose not to be punished for it. This is the error in the argument you are trying to make. (1/2)
    – Steve
    Dec 6, 2022 at 7:49
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    Also, we usually accept that there can be a violation even through thoughtlessness or ignorance - so there need be no choice at all by the employee. The function of punishment in such cases is to remind the workforce of the policy, or even (with stronger tones of arbitrary rule...) to announce a policy for the first time. (2/2)
    – Steve
    Dec 6, 2022 at 7:49
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Sounds like Zorp needs to be held to a code of conduct appropriate to his level, after the boundaries clearly explained: this is not acceptable, this is okay. Not debated, told. This is your job, these are your boundaries.

Zorp's love to debate and explain why they can and enter circular arguements to avoid conceding a point, so don't bother trying. Give the rule, deal with infractions.

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  • Yeah, his inability to concede fault didn't help him.
    – Alois
    Dec 1, 2022 at 16:14
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Well, first of all, i find it bewildering that you are labeling the person "Zorp" and at the same time speak about respect and manners. Maybe you are letting your own emotions off the leash here.

You are facing an employee who shows initiative, will to communicate and loyalty to his department. You can see these aspects as negatives or positives. You obviously chose the negative.

Instead of seeing the potential of the candidate and trying to make the best use of it, you are focusing on the negative interpretation, foster your annoyance and even think about firing. Where on earth is asking for a one-on-one meeting a reason to get fired? Where on earth is challenging a decision reason to get fired? Are you in the military or the CCCP? If not, then maybe you should step from your high horse.

If the employee challenges a decision, then he should receive the means to come to the same conclusion as the rest of you (assuming the decision is correct) or he should be put in a position to correct the rest of you (assuming the decision is incorrect). There is also a third option that both possible solutions are viable and it is down to politics/preference/strategy which one is chosen. In those cases it also would not hurt to simply explain these aspects to the employee. Do you want a following foot soldier or a conscious co-worker?

If all those things already happened, it might be time for a warning shot, a meeting with clear communication. Would this be a "strike"? No! Because the employee did act on good faith. After you have told him the limits, you can start handing out strikes.

Every company has slightly different dynamics. Maybe he came out of a company with flat hierarchies and your company is more vertically structured. Maybe he is not aware of this different dynamic. Does it make him a bad employee? Certainly not.

In our field people have their strong suits and the weak suits. Some are excellent developers but bad communicators. Some are perfect designers but fail when taking them into real life contexts. As a manager you should accept the challenge to endorse their strong sides and to empower them to compensate their weaker characteristics. And every once in a while even one of those "weaker" characteristics will help you find a solution to a problem.

You are putting out all these plans of terminating him right before christmas. And not a single line of your post suggests that you or your company have ever attempted to address the "issue" and coach (as indicated by your tag) the employee. If your technical leads are so overworked that they cannot coach and communicate with your junior employees, you might want to consider other problems in your company. Dont take your companies problems out on a motivated junior.

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  • I'm not understanding it the same way: OP says that 'Zorp' strongly disagrees with a management decision, refuses it, upsets colleagues and other teams, and tries to have others to change their minds. That's not that they 'obviously chose the negative', but rather that they can't let this negative attitude happen. You can always discuss the pros and cons, but once management decides and sets a line of action, you move on and do your job (or anything else but not discuss it, as it's too late...)
    – OldPadawan
    Dec 2, 2022 at 15:29
  • "Are you in the military or the CCCP? If not, then maybe you should step from your high horse." The irony.
    – rhoonah
    Mar 21, 2023 at 20:28
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Another angle here. To me this sounds like he has read way too much inspirational BS on LinkedIn. Empty confidence, moves to make him look import and visible, and half baked office politics.

Not that it excuses his massive step in the salad (to use a Norwegian term).

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