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I'm currently advising a team of six developers working in a company which relies on this team to handle all in-house projects.

The team has a developer who—for some legal reasons I would prefer to keep undisclosed—cannot be fired. The problem is that this person doesn't perform as well as expected, due to personal problems. While the person has the required skills, a personal event made this person psychologically fragile, and her integration within the team is very difficult. Here are some of the problems encountered:

  • She is unable to perform some of the tasks and spends a huge amount of time performing others. For instance, two weeks ago, she took a task of implementing a rather basic feature¹ of the project. One week later, it appeared that she is unable to implement it, so another colleague took over and did the feature from scratch in two hours.

  • Despite all her efforts, she creates a lot of bugs in her code. I worked with her personally to explain how to unit test the code, what tests are relevant and which ones are not, but I failed. For instance, she is still not testing more than a half of the edge cases.

  • She is reluctant to perform some basic tasks expected from any developer. Two are especially annoying: she doesn't commit her code often enough (usually she stays from one day to seven days without doing a commit, while her colleagues are committing at least twice per day and often up to ten times per day), or she never writes comments in her code.

  • She creates regressions when modifying others' code, and often can't figure out how the code should be fixed. Frequently, she ends up being helped by the original author of the code, wasting a lot of time.

  • She barely speaks with her coworkers, making team communication difficult and awkward. Being depressive, she also takes a lot of things personally, which means that even a question such as “Have you finished implementing this interface?” can (and often would) be taken personally, and will be answered in a very defensive way.

  • During the meetings, she practically doesn't participate, and also takes everything personally. For instance, during the last weekly meeting, the manager was asking why a given feature was late. While the feature was completely independent of her work,² she still perceived it as a personal blame (note that this manager never blames anyone).

  • Code reviews are absolutely out of question. The team tried pair programming with her, but failed.

Unfortunately, she not only harms herself, but also the team morale both during the meetings and the daily work. A week ago, her colleague (who also appears to be the most valuable developer in this company) talked informally with the CEO, telling that he can't work in this environment any longer and will leave soon if the management doesn't take a firm decision. I'm afraid other developers will soon start searching for another job too.

We (the project manager, the CEO and I) also thought about:

  • Another job within the company for this person. Since the company deals with manufacturing requiring special skills and other jobs (accounting, legal affairs, etc.) also require specific skills, this is not a solution.

  • Get help from a psychologist. It appears that she already consults psychologists for several years, so I hardly doubt her lack of self-esteem and her communication skills will improve this way.

  • A development-related job which is technically simple and requires no communication skills. The problem is that it's difficult to come with such job and will affect negatively her self-esteem.

  • I recently suggested another alternative: let the female developer work remotely (from home) on low-priority tasks assigned to her directly by a manager. This would prevent her from affecting the team, without lowering her self-esteem. The CEO is currently discussing this alternative with the lawyer.

Are there other alternatives?

More generally, what should be the manager do to prevent this person to unintentionally harm the team, and eventually make this person productive?

Note: if it matters, it seems that I have a privileged relation with the female developer: while she barely speaks to her coworkers or her manager, she seems to trust me and talks to me. The fact that I don't work in this company and intervene in an informal way, as a friend of the CEO, may be the reason for that.


¹ The feature consisted of implementing LESS minification in an intranet website. Not straightforward in the context of an actual project, but still not particularly difficult; I would estimate the task at one to four hours.

² The feature was purely on client-side, that is JavaScript with no reliance on server-side components. The female developer works exclusively on server-side part of the project.

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    If others do not work from home, this will be perceived as a reward by the other devs. I would under no circumstances allow an incompetent person to work from home. – HLGEM Mar 9 '15 at 18:03
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    You never mentioned a poor performance on her last job review. What was her reaction? Did anyone tell her if you can't do certain parts of your job it is terms for dismissal? – user8365 Mar 9 '15 at 18:35
  • @JeffO: there are no formal job reviews in this company. To answer your second question, in her contract, there is a list of tasks she should be able to do for this job (also mentioned during the original interview), but I believe that the company lawyer considered this list irrelevant in this case (not sure about the details). – Arseni Mourzenko Mar 9 '15 at 18:47
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    This question is being discussed on meta here: meta.workplace.stackexchange.com/q/3087/325 – Monica Cellio Mar 11 '15 at 16:38
  • All the stuff you edited out gives a ton of context, especially since the top rated answer refers to it. That context is crucial to your question and should be included, even if you phrase it differently to work it back in. – YetAnotherRandomUser Jul 25 '18 at 22:29
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Of course the company can fire her and from the sound of it should fire her. However, the lawyers might need to get involved in how to correctly document the performance problems in order to make the firing stick. The problem in the prior court case is almost certainly that the poor performance was not addressed or correctly documented or that others were allowed to make the same mistakes without being fired. Find out why the case was lost and then make sure you don't do the same thing again. But it should not mean you can't get rid of the incompetent.

In the meantime, stop enabling her poor performance. Treat her exactly as you would anyone else who is not performing. Be careful not to single her out, if others have performance issues or do the same things you complain about her doing, then make sure they too are treated the same way you treat her. Her disability isn't the problem, her sex isn't the problem. The way you let things slide without correcting them and insisting she do her job is a large part of the problem.

Tell her directly to commit code daily. When she does not, then write it up as a performance issue. Tell her that her attitude in taking everything personally is unacceptable and that you expect her to change. Do not worry about her self-esteem or psychological issues, that is her problem. Document that her unit tests are inadequate and that her code contains more bugs and that she takes too long to implement things. Put her on a performance improvement plan with the goal that she improves or goes. Document every single thing the company has tried to improve her performance.

If the lawyers say not to fire her, the best bet is to move her to a position where she can do less damage. Personally, I would consider giving her a make-work project to do that will be nice to have if she manages to complete it and no problem if it never gets done. Then have her work alone on it. Or give her a specific assignment that is not in the critical path of the project.

In the meantime, hire some well-qualifed women and disabled people. Once you have them in place and are rewarding their good work, it becomes more possible to fire the incompetent.

From some of the comments, it sounds as if the CEO of this company is also incompetent. He should have procedures in place to deal with performance problems and then follow them for everyone who has a performance problem (not just the disabled woman). The last court case should have convinced him of the need to do this.

For people who think this is not the compassionate route and that I am not understanding enough of her depression, I will point out that I have dealt with depression for almost 50 years. I am well aware of how it can impact your work.

Yes it is harder to work at a high level when you are depressed. That is a personal problem just like someone trying to work as an alcoholic or with severe pain or even while having chemo treatments. You can only accomodate so far and this person has in my judgement reached that limit.

If she can't contribute in any way to the business, then she is a charity case and the business is under no obligation to support that. The techinques I described are to help prevent lawsuits but the truth is this person is harming morale, she is causing better employees to leave, she is not contributing to the bottom line and she needs to be gone. The time for accomodation seems to be long past and from the description in the question, the company has tried very hard to get her to be productive. At some point you have to cut your losses.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Monica Cellio Mar 11 '15 at 0:47
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    I had a blind employee that had very bad job performance. I did almost exactly what @HLGEM is suggesting here. Not only was I able to finally get him let go, but because I was always his biggest advocate when he had special needs and treated him with respect, he actually thanked me when he was finally let go. A consistent performance improvement plan with documented meetings is crucial. – David Baucum Mar 11 '15 at 17:29
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    "prior court case"? --- the question or comments containing that information have been edited/removed/moved... I see no mention of this information elsewhere. – Jeutnarg Oct 14 '16 at 15:28
  • @Jeutnarg: Earlier versions of the question (visible in edit history) mentioned that the company tried to fire a different disabled employee, and was taken to court. – sleske Mar 1 '18 at 8:49
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One possibility, already well described and plausibly The Way Things Should Be (ie. rigorously following and documenting procedure) certainly will shore up your argument better if/when you opt for another firing. It's possible "telling her like it is" could prompt a turnaround - you'll have to decide for yourself, honestly, how likely that is given her history and (clearly very tough) personal circumstances.

Similarly, though the law may be clear on who's technically "in the right", you've judged the practicalities of another arduous court battle (plus reputational fallout) not to be worth it. Considering the actual question then: you're going to have to pay her whatever the case, yet I notice formal training isn't in the long list of things you've tried. I'm surprised this hasn't been suggested as the natural remedy to an under-qualified employee, or at least a grudging alternative to "isolate-implicate-fire".

Similar things (eg. explaining, helping, pair programming) have been tried informally without success. But I repeat: you're already paying the money, so why not dedicate some resources toward improving your chance of seeing a return? Perhaps external trainers, some expertise in the matter, could be brought in; hell, you could send her away for training (if you're going to 'partition the star devs from the toxicity', you may as well go the whole hog and actually stand a chance of getting some improvement!)

The risk of yet more wastage could be countered by involving her in the process - what opportunities for personal & career development does your organization offer? Do these appeal to her? What would? This speaks to a broader point - she doesn't engage with you as was stated several times, but have you engaged with her? For instance, by asking how her long-term career goals could fit with the company (note this goes beyond training as in 'we tell you how you should work here' and becomes 'we explore and develop those aspects of you which show the most potential for us' - even more crucial the worse the employee gets IMO given they're here now and there's not much to lose). Your description reads very much like an 'outside perspective' (caused by her withdrawal), but as others have said failure to open dialogue over the issues doesn't stop you trying again. Why not experiment with your approach? Have you asked how she feels it's going? What she thinks the problems are to be solved, and how? It's less about allowing the employee to dictate the terms (you don't have to do what she says), more about fostering dialogue and gathering intelligence. If she's going to cause damage and you can't simply eject the threat, maybe you can improve your prior warning. Better to spot trouble on the horizon (especially considering your 'privileged relationship') than feel like an onlooker to another train crash.

Even if you engaged her every which way, got nothing, persisted for ages, hired the training, lost the money, then had to fire her anyway, this can only improve your company's knowledge of handling such challenging employees (as well as strengthening your case should it go to court, having gone above-and-beyond). People suffer awful personal circumstances, and sometimes they bring them to work. Is firing - or as close as you can get given pesky discrimination law - going to be your solution every time? Or would you rather be known as the proactive company that demonstrates strength in adversity?

  • I like that you suggest a compassionate, realistic alternative to the hard line being taken by HLGEM's answer. – Karen Mar 11 '15 at 15:07
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Of course these days the corporate thing to do is involve lawyers and HR and either be "nice" or be a jerk. I believe there's another (better) way:

The most important thing is people. People are more important than the company. If you treat them accordingly, they'll usually respond. But remember that ALL your team is important. On a ship, one bad gunner, navigator or other sailor can get the whole ship sunk and kill the whole crew. Being "nice" is a luxury one cannot always afford. (I use "afford" not only about money/profit, but also team moral, time, etc.)

So the first thing: count the cost. If it's a big company, then you can afford to shift her around and invest in her as a slow-growth project that will have a high return over time. Seriously, invest in a mess like her, and if it pays off the reward will be astounding. But a small company cannot afford such a thing and the weak link will break the chain that has no redundancy.

Explain this delicately to those who need to know. Do the best you can to invest in her, and encourage others to do so - and make it personal. Teach her, guide her, and walk her through stuff, and let her know that's what you're doing. Not because it's profitable or nice - but because it's what you would want someone to do for you. And by extension, you communicate to the whole team that you won't slam them - unless you have no choice. Then the whole team will be helped.

You may have no choice, if you simply can't "afford" it. If that's the case, then encourage people to help her - not as a company, but as individuals - to transition to another job. Besides, she would be happier in a place where she can be respected instead of pitied and endured.

This is what a real team does ... not just a group of guys that CALL themselves a team, but really care about the human beings with whom they share a common goal.

Note: this is not about absorbing inefficiencies. It's about investing in people as resources. Investing in a person (or anything else) is about getting a return on investment. Giant companies can afford to invest in R&D, for example. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes not. But small start-ups need to stay focused on the main thing. As such, smaller companies cannot "afford" long-term, risky investments in developing flakes. But for those who can - the payoff in the long term can be astounding.

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    So are you recommending that large companies absorb inefficiencies such as poor performers but small companies should not? That seems like it would lead the large company to not stay competitive. – Jared Mar 11 '15 at 4:22
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Sounds like an extreme case of code insecurity. Promulgated by the initial hire of someone who doesn't seem to understand how to code to begin with. Level that with expectations coming from the company and its only natural for what you described to happen. Problem sounds simple to solve; get someone to thoroughly go through the basics again with her and when that's done actually go through with implementing a mid level feature (you seem to be the candidate since she seems to trust you). I bet you that 90% of her attitude problems will go away once she feels more confident in her code and her ability to program. Your company needs to own up to the fact that it made a bad hire to begin with and actually try to address the problem instead of trying to come up with hilarious ways to go about with her dismissal as suggested in one of the answers (hiring qualified women and people with disabilities to ease her eventual dismissal (fucking really? that doesn't sound absolutely ridiculous to you?))

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I'm no expert on this, but what I would do is negotiate. As another poster suggested, try to understand where she's coming from. Maybe find out if she has a case manager or counselor at a local disability center and, with her permission, get some advice from the case manager. The case manager/counselor presumably knows a lot about her and her disability.

Show her that you care about her and that you are willing to work with her to come up with a solution.

Maybe she could, for example:

-Go to training (as another poster suggested) -Go to therapy sessions and/or support group meetings, with financial support from the company -Work on a project that's not critical (like another poster suggested) or that has a deadline she can meet.

protected by Community Mar 11 '15 at 14:38

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