One of my employees in a tech startup is behaving erratically. We are a small team of about a dozen people working our asses off for launching our apps. Initially he was OK, working and trying to learn. But now he seems a bit disinterested. Some of the problems we are facing with him are:

  1. His father has a terminal illness, so he has to visit his parents. We are fine with it. He goes on Friday and comes back on Monday. All other members work on Saturday and Sunday if required, but given his exceptional circumstances we are okay with it.
  2. Quite regularly he just tells my boss that he is in a bad frame of mind and needs to reinvigorate for which he goes to his girlfriend's city, stays there for a week and comes back. My boss is very pissed, and I don’t like that he directly approached him instead of taking my approval. We are a small team, so everyone is approachable.
  3. A few days back he came up with a plan that, since he doesn’t like the city, we have an office in which he can work from home in his girlfriend’s city. This was also done directly to my boss. My boss talked to me and conveyed that we should start looking for someone new as this will not work. I intervened and talked to the employee and suggested that he could work from home for a week, but he has to be in our office for the rest of time. I do not want to ask him to resign as I think he can improve if he focuses and shows commitment.
  4. So he went for his monthly leave and came back and did not do any work. He was supposed to be working from home. Seeing his slow pace I finished off his tasks. He came up with excuse that the data card given was not working. I mean in this age of hotspot and tethering… I swallowed my frustration.

I really do not wish to fire any of my employees, but in a small team we cannot be giving too many freebies to one employee otherwise other team members will start feeling discriminated. Also we are output driven, so he should at least deliver on tasks assigned and agreed on.

So I am in a bind: How do I make him understand that being adults we have to deal with our problems and work or we take leave without pay. One cannot be doing nothing for weeks and expecting to be paid.

EDIT: I talked to the employee... and mentioned that his output has declined substantially over past two months as compared to his first two months (only 4 months old). He was evasive, but when pressed he admitted that this city is not conducive and he would like to work in another city (neighboring his girlfriend) and he gave me a deadline that he will resign by 31st May... I calmed him down and asked him to take his time and look for a job he wants and not change another one so fast (this is his third job in 2 years)... He has our support and even if he does not leave, we will be fine, but he has to perform and meet mutually agreed deadlines... keep us looped in of any difficulties which can result in output decline... No breaking the hierarchy and show commitment and dedication till he is with us...

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    You are working through weekends? Don't be surprised when you burn people out that way.
    – Philipp
    Apr 20, 2015 at 14:05
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    I know you are a startup but you need to read this artile and think hard about your ridiculous work schedule, weekend work is counterproductive: alternet.org/story/154518/…
    – HLGEM
    Apr 20, 2015 at 14:14
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    @BillLeeper So you mean because they are a startup they can make management errors like ignoring decades of research and practical experience which have clearly shown that when people work more than 40 hours a week, their weekly work output decreases?
    – Philipp
    Apr 20, 2015 at 14:55
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    The guy is burnt out and not handling it well, as others have noted, and should probably be let go. That's not the main issue though. He won't be the last to go through this change. I've worked for similar high-stakes startups and I can tell you from experience, the way to succeed is not pushing people to meet every deadline, it's having the experience and foresight to know how to estimate work appropriately ahead of time so that no one needs to push that hard. Otherwise teams will almost always collapse. Get rid of the person setting unrealistic expectations (probably the boss or sales).
    – thanby
    Apr 20, 2015 at 18:10
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    I almost can't believe you have the gall to bring up his visits to a terminally ill parent(!) during the weekend(!) as one of his "problems". I hope you claimed to be fine with it twice because you really are and not to avoid the criticism such an absurd demand deserves. It seems like this employee lacks professionalism to a stunning degree but the way your company treats its employees is a much more pervasive problem that will quickly erode morale and work output.
    – Lilienthal
    Apr 21, 2015 at 12:30

5 Answers 5


It really sounds like it's time to cut this person loose. If he wanted to take a leave he should have asked to do so, but committing to work remotely and then deciding not to do so is fraud. You have more than enough grounds to let this person go.

Listen to your boss, he knows what he is talking about.

Your employee knows he is taking advantage of you too and should not be surprised when you fire him. Also, to use your words, in this day and age of electronic storage and access you need to immediately cut off his network access and secure his computer when you fire him. You don't want him corrupting your network or codebase. There is a very good reason people are walked out when they are fired or laid off.

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    Money and problems are supposed to flow in the same direction. (Employment: "Here are our problems and here is some money to deal with them.") When they flow in opposite directions, the relationship needs to be severed. Apr 20, 2015 at 15:12
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    I prefer to take a more holistic approach where in a sense a company looks after its own, typically people want to be productive and typically people want to be good at what they do, when they don't then having the team give them some support is always beneficial. ( for example let's say someone who works in a warehouse has broken their leg, they are typically quite happy to have their role temporarily adjusted to maybe managing logistics, double checking all packed orders, data entry, or some other less physical role. ) Of course there is always the one who takes things too far. Apr 20, 2015 at 22:38
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    Check a lawyer first. This is a common advice here, but in such cases it's critical. I know that under local law, firing a person who is burned out due to excessive workload is an unfair dismissal. Working 2 weekends in a row is already illegal per sé here, so an excessive workload would be already proven. And since the health of the employee is affected, not only would you be on the hook for the dismissal (with penalties added for unprofessional behavior), you'd also be liable for damages. To give you an idea: that could be several years of salary you're looking at.
    – MSalters
    Apr 21, 2015 at 8:25
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    Maybe it's because I am a software engineer, but I see this individual as a programmer. Computer programmers are an excluded class for almost all employment law in the US, which is interesting in itself. But always good to know your legal position. IMO it's not burnout though, it's the fact that he would rather spend the week with his girlfriend. Apr 21, 2015 at 20:19

His father has a terminal illness

I think this is the root of the issue, he's likely under pressure and maybe even depressed (the points you mention sound like classic symptoms, lack of focus/interest, slow pace etc).

It's good you are being supportive, you need to think about how understanding you are going to be longer term. The father may be terminal, but that could be years.

You need to decide based on both compassion and what your business needs. Your choices are:

  1. Cut him loose - if you can't keep supporting him then cut him loose sooner rather than later, if you wait you may get to a point where you let him go just as the father passes, which will be a hundred times worse.
  2. Support him - keep him working, but drop back his duties and what you expect of him. If he is worth the support so far (and you sound optimistic) then he will pay back in effort once over this. Set some lighter duties (ideally non-critical), which he can keep moving with. Cut his some slack, BUT also set clear targets and expect him to meet them. If he still can't meet these, then you may have a bigger issue outside of his personal issues.

Give him support, but make sure he holds up his end.

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    The problem didn't appear to be his father, but spending weeks with his Girlfriend and not actually working. The father story, while possibly true, is not the real issue here. Apr 20, 2015 at 14:42
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    No I'd say most of the signs of a depression are there (but I'm not a doctor), and that seems as likely a cause as any. My own father declined wth Cancer over about 18 months and it cast a shadow over the family whilst it happened, so i'm speaking from my own experience. But also why I said be clear about targets, in case the issue is wider Apr 20, 2015 at 14:50
  • Given the other items, I'd question whether the employee's father actually does have an illness.
    – NotMe
    Apr 20, 2015 at 15:50
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    @AbhinavDwivedi: Note that depression and being in a good mood at any given time are not mutually-exclusive. When he goes on a beach escapade, he may well be upbeat and "happy." That doesn't mean he isn't depressed. In fact, mood swings ("happy" in one situation, then down and unmotivated in another) are a symptom of depression. Depression is a long-term thing, not a bad mood. That said: A) Being depressed doesn't mean that it's okay for him to defraud you. :-) And of course, B) He may or may not actually be depressed. Could be playing you guys. Apr 20, 2015 at 16:28
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    I recently lost my mother to cancer and IMO this is the going to be the root cause of the issue, it is probably having the knock on effect of it being more of a problem living away from his girlfriend as he is relying on her for emotional support far more than under normal circumstances. Mar 10, 2016 at 15:41

Your employee might be suffering from a mental health conditon called burnout syndrome.

Without an actual assessment from a psychologist and just your 2nd hand account this is only a speculation from me, but the symptoms like disinterest in work and extended leave for personal reasons seem to be there. The usual reason for this condition also seem to be present: When the stress threshold of a human is overstrained for an extended period of time, and personal stress factors like a terminally ill family member and a long distance relationship further increase the stress level, a burnout is a natural reaction.

When you want to keep the employee, you need to reduce the stress they experience during work to a bearable level. When you are afraid it might hurt morale to just cut some slack for a single team member, you should consider to reduce the stress level in your company as a whole. The employee might be the first with a burnout, but he might not be the last.

You said that working through weekends is common in your company and everyone is "working their asses off". This is not a viable long-term strategy! Various researches have shown that people simply can not work efficiently for more than 40 hours a week. Overstraining this stress level results in lack of concentration which reduces the work output and increases the amount of mistakes made. As a result, the weekly output of a worker decreases when you have them work more than 40 hours. It might sound counter-intuitive, but your company might be able to accomplish more by working less.

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    @AbhinavDwivedi: How can you possibly have a cohesive and productive team when you all just do whatever you want whenever you want?? Tell me you at least have set meeting times? Or is there a problem with control and authority at play here? Apr 20, 2015 at 15:29
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    @Blam there is a difference between cramming for exams - doing an 80h week of studying, and doing 50s or 60s or 70s week in and week out. A short push and sprint is something you can do and push yourself hard for. But you don't run a marathon at sprint speed.
    – user10042
    Apr 20, 2015 at 21:26
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    @Blam I'd still suggest giving Slack and Peopleware a read - both by Tom DeMarco. In Peopleware, the section is titled "Overtime: An Unanticipated Side Effect": "Extended overtime is a productivity-reduction technique, anyway. The extra hours are almost always more than offset by the negative side effects. This is true even if you don’t consider the disruption of the team. When you take into account the way that the team members’ differing abilities to work overtime tends to destroy teams, the case against it becomes persuasive." - working extended overtime is foolish for an organization.
    – user10042
    Apr 20, 2015 at 21:38
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    A non fixed seating plan is NOT the standard at any good company, in fact it is the sign of a bad company! Don't do things just because they are trendy.
    – HLGEM
    Apr 20, 2015 at 21:57
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    @Blam: "The problem is that even though people aren’t actually more productive when they work overtime, they feel more productive (multitasking has a similar effect)" alifeofproductivity.com/… Apr 21, 2015 at 0:44

While I think I would have fired this person long ago, frankly it is your company that is broken not this one employee.

You don't understand how to truly manage people and you are (no surprise here) getting poor results as a result. The single worst way to manage is let people do whatever they want.

Start managing. It is not micromanagement to expect results. It is not micromanagement to ask why they are not getting things done and hold people responsible. You should be sitting with a dev who claims to have a blocker and ask him to show you the problem and help him get rid of the blocker or show him a way to solve his problem. You should code review every piece of code they check in and ask questions when nothing is getting checked in for you to code review. It shouldn't be a surprise on Friday if the milestones aren't met.

You should above all start requiring they work the hours they are being paid for. No time off unless approved in advance. No working a 4 hour day when they are supposed to be working an 8 hour one espcially if they have to work weekends to make it up. Getting to leave early is for when your work is done, not when you feel like it. You can allow more freedom once they start producing, but underperformers don't get privileges. Period. Ever. You have put the priviledges ahead of the production of work and that is why you are failing. It is why this guy thinks he can do whatever he wants with no negative consequences. You are a manager, you have to start instituting negative consequences.

You need to hold people accountable and get rid of people who don't perform. You need to do more than a daily standup where apparently it is ok to say you didn't do anything the day before. Why are you not putting them on the spot when they aren't making progress?

You need to have policies, you need to stop this anyone can take any time off they want stuff. You can't possibly plan project milestones in an enviroment like that. You need to hold people responsible for completing milestones and get rid of the slackers. That you are asking people to work weekends because people didn't work very hard during the week is unacceptable.

If your current staff members don't understand how to work, then fire them and get some new ones. Get rid of trendy things like open offices and unassigned seating, that is cutting productivity as well. Any emplyee who is unable to make progress while working remotely loses the priviledge.

Expect check ins to source control daily and go to the person directly and ask what they are doing when they don't check anything in.

Your entire staff are behaving like children and you are letting them. This is a business, you have to start managing it like one, not like some frat house where people come and go at all hours and don't do anything they don't feel like doing.

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    This post is a rant, contains dozens of far-reaching reorganization and work philosophy ideas and doesn't address the question directly. -1 Apr 22, 2015 at 17:12

If company provided equipment failed to function properly then it was his responsibility to contact IT support rather than just wait out the hours doing nothing, exactly the same if he had been in the office. As a startup you can't afford to carry someone for very long.

Regarding how to make him understand, your statement is pretty clear "Being adults we have to deal with our problems and work or we take leave without pay. One cannot be doing nothing for weeks and expecting to be paid." This statement would be a bit harsh if this was the first response but you have attempted to make reasonable accomodations but he hasn't held up his end.

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