11

I hired a very talented employee a month ago part-time and this has triggered a stir ever since. The employee is talented, creative, innovative, courteous, generous and very intelligent. He was very humble and honest during the job interview, unlike many people who "do anything to get a high-paying job".

The company, ultimately, is a software firm. We have been going through a lot of issues lately, such as horrible code and a severe lack of ideas. Even the most respected and "high-paid" employees couldn't solve some of the problems that we had, and they themselves branded it a very difficult time.

But then, the very talented employee (let's call him Leon) came and arguably, this was a magical moment for the firm. Leon came, solved virtually all of our problems, came up with many interesting ideas, and wrote crystal-clear and beautiful code that has set a standard at the firm.

Not only that, but he also came up with some very clever tactics to promote our firm and sales have increased rather greatly. The firm is still small and recently established, but we've been gaining a lot of success lately, thanks to the work of Leon. But here's the problem is: He is 18.

The average age of the employees at the firm is more than 30+ and ever since Leon arrived, he has been refuting the ideas of the previous employees and asking me to follow his ideas. And I am not saying that this was bad, but rather following him skyrocketed our revenues.

Everybody at the office is feeling highly intimidated and even humiliated by Leon. Everything that they do, every idea that they come up with, every code that they write, Leon picks up an immense variety of issues in it and suggests something about a thousand times better. They are all feeling embarrassed how a young introvert can be so much better than them.

After all, how would you feel if you built a machine that produced a piece of paper and thought that it can't get any better than that with great effort, then somebody so young came and made a machine that produces even better paper, with innovative features that you couldn't even think about? That is the situation here. Leon is very nice and treats everybody with kindness, while everybody at the office has adopted an adverse attitude towards him and is really angry. Leon is always formulating unique software and many of the employees just "follow what the world follows" but Leon doesn't do that. In a sense, he's in a league of his own and a few days ago, I even saw him teaching how to cleverly make a chess engine in Malbolge to a veteran employee and I could see the look on his face, he was clearly feeling awkward.

Last friday, 7 of my employees came and asked me that "Leon should be fired" because his presence is making everybody feel uncomfortable, and that this has led to a "decrease in productivity". I couldn't come up with a better reply, so I just said that "I'll think about it." Then yesterday, another group of employees came regarding Leon and advised that "his presence at the firm is causing great turbulence and insecurity among us and thus, it is has having a negative effect on the firm as a whole." and I told them again that I cannot be bothered with such matters at the current moment and that I'll see about it.

I do not want to fire Leon, because he is fantastic in every way possible but then If I don't fire him, there is a potential threat of many employees to depart the company. How can I handle this situation to keep Leon but also make the others more comfortable?

closed as off-topic by IDrinkandIKnowThings, gnat, ChrisF, The Wandering Dev Manager, NotMe Jul 6 '15 at 22:15

This question appears to be off-topic. The users who voted to close gave this specific reason:

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  • 75
    Sorry but I am not buying that in one month an 18 year old has: solved virtually all problems, set a standard at the firm, and alienated all employees. Sales tactics have led to increased sales in one month? Last Friday was a holiday (well in the US). Yesterday was Sunday. Malbolge is an esoteric programming language designed to be as difficult to program in as possible. I don't have rep to vote to close but this question is not genuine. – paparazzo Jul 6 '15 at 19:56
  • 13
    Is this a genuine situation or are you exaggerating the facts? In my 10+ years in software industry I have yet to meet such a magical unicorn as what you describe. – Burhan Khalid Jul 6 '15 at 20:19
  • 12
    I think many may be missing the alternate possibility: Leon may not be a magical unicorn, but as the saying goes, in the land of the blind, the man with one eye is king. I've seen "College buddies" get together and not get "Hello World" done without three sprints. Leon may simply be a proficient coder who seems like a magical unicorn by comparison. – Wesley Long Jul 6 '15 at 21:15
  • 2
    I'm presuming this is a troll, but since the answers have some value I'm not voting to close. I___do___ think the question should, at the very least, be edited down to what's actually relevant; the same situation could be better described in a few sentences. – keshlam Jul 6 '15 at 21:25
  • 3
    "I hired an 18-year-old hotshot. He's damned good at programming, process, and even promotion. Problem is, he's making some of the old-timers (meaning age 30, which is a different problem) unhappy. Some of them have complained that he. 'Doesn't play well with others' and that some of what he's done has made more work for them, destabilizing existing code and processes . How can I gain from the kid's insights and enthusiasm without driving everyone else crazy?" – keshlam Jul 6 '15 at 21:32
26

I'm going to be a little brutal, here, so hang on.

First, you have 99 problems, but Leon ain't one (to paraphrase a popular song).

Enderland is right on the money when he says that you have weak management, and it sounds like you may be part of the problem, there.

  1. You have a festering mass of mediocrity that feels not only entrenched, but entitled. To have a group of employees, let alone 2 groups, feel they can come to you and have someone fired because they feel threatened with this level of performance means that you have completely failed to set expectations on many levels.
  2. You have a small, recently-established firm? To me, that also means vulnerable. However, you might have an angel investor with very deep pockets, so let's leave that alone for a moment.
  3. Your other employees must be aware of the above point, but when a genuine shift comes along that has a very immediate and positive impact on revenue, and they resent it, that means these employees are not in any way concerned with the health of the company.
  4. You "stumbled" upon a very talented person who is genuinely trying to not only get along, but share his talent, and your organization is completely unprepared to integrate him. The employees are rallying against him, and you "can't be bothered."

Here's what you SHOULD do:

  1. Isolate Leon from the other employees. Give him a critical task to work out on his own and see how well he holds up under pressure. In my experience, 18-year-olds can lack some "temper" to their steel. See what he's got.
  2. Call a meeting with your top-management, and discuss all the above openly and honestly.
  3. Be prepared to leave that meeting and fire every one of the other employees. It may not need to be done immediately, but you've got a mutiny on your hands, and the only way to deal with mutiny is the navy way. Every last one of these employees is a lost cause. Many will argue with me on that, but it's the truth.
  4. Do whatever it takes to keep Leon around. If what you said is true, I'd be working out a deal to send him to college on the 6-year plan and keep him around throughout.
  5. Be nice to Leon. I have a feeling in about 10 years, you're going to be working for him, whether it be at this company or the company that buys you out if you don't keep him.
  • 8
    (Upvoted, with a "but") Use Leon. Be nice to Leon. Be happy that Leon's presence has identified these problems. BUT As a manager, it is irresponsible to build your company's future around Leon's continued contribution. – brian_o Jul 7 '15 at 14:13
19

For the purposes of my answer, I will assume that the information provided in the question is accurate.

To Leon: Leave immediately. You are young, bright, and have developed solutions which add value. Your company is dysfunctional and toxic, and you can learn very little here. You deserve to further develop your craft at a competent firm with knowledgeable mentors. Resist the urge to "save" this company.

To Leon's manager: In the course of a month, an 18-year-old part-timer has shown you that your office is populated by a group of people who apparently deliver very little value and are vocally averse to improving the company's prospects. Sure, use Leon to boost your numbers in the short time, but Leon is a transient who will leave you (which is fine, kids should be allowed to move and grow). Even if he stays, despite his friendliness he has demonstrated an inability to act as an effective change agent (and that's not bad--you should never expect an 18-year-old part-timer to be the change agent of a failing company).

You need to spend some time, energy, and money searching for a candidate to conduct an overhaul of your software team. Yes, you must hire from the outside as you have already failed miserably at ensuring that your employees write quality code that delivers value. It appears that this process will be brutal--some of your people might be flexible enough to do well in the new regime but many will not.

Find and hire a managing senior programmer. Be honest in your pitch during recruiting. Pay them well.

  • 2
    +1. Wish you weren't right, but sadly, yours is the most likely scenario. You never want to knowingly let a "Leon" get away from you, but you don't make a prized Arabian into a plowhorse. – Wesley Long Jul 6 '15 at 23:16
8

tl;dr: stop dismissing your team concerns and rebuild their trust and work with other management to identify next steps

On Your Management Style

I told them again that I cannot be bothered with such matters at the current moment and that I'll see about it.

This makes you a really bad manager frankly. Your job isn't to dismiss the concerns of your reports so casually when your entire team is frustrated by this.

You can't just tell seven of your employees that you don't care about their concerns that are significant enough they asked you to fire one of their coworkers (!!!). This will break their trust in you -- and rightly so.

Culture, Culture, Culture

because he is fantastic in every way possible

Every way possible? Really?

Obviously he is not (unless everyone else on your team is terrible). Culture fit is important too and it sounds like Leon doesn't fit your culture at all or vice versa.

Now there are a few reasons this might be the case:

  • All current employees are worried Leon will make their jobs irrelevant and they will lose them and actively resist him
  • Leon is not good at correcting/suggesting ideas (new people always receive resistance to their ideas, a new young prodigy type of person is even less likely to do handle this well)
  • Leon is condescending/passive aggressive without realizing it (lots of really intelligent people are inadvertently this way and either don't care/don't learn to be better)
  • Your current employees are not good employees and now there is a good reference point

Now some people will always feel threatened by someone who is better at their job than them. Some people will always be resistant to change. This is just how people are.

Your next steps...

You need to handle two aspects of this. First, you need to coach Leon in suggesting process improvements without doing so in a way which is negative. Most companies cannot survive due to the brilliance of one person. That brilliant person must be able to work with others. As a manager you need to work with Leon to make sure he understands how others perceive him. Right now, others don't perceive him well at all. It doesn't matter how great he is if he can't work with others. It sounds like that is the case.

This is particularly the case if your geographic culture has a lot of respect for authority. In many cultures (India, Korea, Japan, etc) "a kid" will have a huge cultural barrier to overcome. For hierarchal cultures this is nearly the worst thing possible, a new person with 1/2 the age of current employees will... have a lot of issues related to this.

And regardless, people will be difficult to accept feedback from "just a kid." But guess what, you are the manager, and managing isn't just a trivially simple job all the time. People are... annoying manytimes.

Second you need to work with your other team members. You need to reestablish trust with them. From your question it sounds like you are star-struck with adoration for Leon, which is great, except... the rest of your team will pick this up. No one is going to like their manager having obvious favorites, but it sure reads like you do. Stop doing this immediately. Have you stopped paying attention to them and focused your time with Leon? What about others at the firm?

You need to make sure that they respect you as a manager and believe you have their interests in mind. Start by talking to your manager and other managers at your firm and understanding the situation better. If I was your manager, and understood what you have seemingly done here, I would be really concerned - it sounds like Leon is actively disengaging and disenfranchising 10+ other employees at your company.

This issue is way beyond your individual ability to resolve at this point. Multiple teams have approached you about getting rid of this person. Your (and now other managers' employees) need to not feel threatened by this person and you and those managers need to ensure this is the case.

5

To fire a star performer would be a set back to your company. You terminate him for the sake of morale, you're limiting your company growth to the greatest potential of your best developer outside of Leon. Terminating him because others call for his ousting is more a political move than anything. Growth is painful at times and it sounds like your developers over 30 are comfortable in their current position of stagnancy spinning their wheels.

Rather than terminate Leon, seek to encourage team building exercises in and out of the office. You expressed that Leon is respectable and even tries to help other employees. The problem really seems to be with your current employees and the "boys club" mentality they have because they don't want someone coming in and one upping them, even if its not by intent. Encourage Leon to learn your company culture so he can mesh with your existing team. Its going to take maturity and team work on everyone's part. Your existing team needs to grow and accept new ideas and talent, and Leon needs to learn the company culture and how to best present ideas in a non-threatening fashion that is mindful of everyone's contribution rather than circumventing other's ideas to completely go about it a different way. Ultimately, you must lead your team and help mesh relations among members.

  • 3
    If you get a "superstar" like this, you need to keep them. They definitely do not come around every day. I would not tell the new guy to tone it down, but rather tell the old-guard to step it up. No matter how good you are you must assume that there is someone out there better. If you can't deal with talented people you shouldn't work in tech. – Mr. Mascaro Jul 6 '15 at 21:07
4

Having Leon around is like winning the lottery.

If you're going to fire Leon, fire him for the right reasons. Firing him because he is a top performer at 18 - that's firing someone for the wrong reasons. I'll learn from anyone as long as that someone is better at it than I am. I'll note that he can't help being 18, it's not his fault that he is smart and in fact, it IS a very good thing that he is smart.

You have horrible code. Who wrote it but the seven stooges who demanded that you fire him? You say that without good ideas, the firm is dead in the water. What's the source of these good ideas, Leon or any combination of the seven stooges?

You laid it out clearly, you CAN'T afford to fire Leon. But you can certainly afford to fire any or all of the seven stooges. The worst that happens if you fire the seven stooges is that they don't get to write horrible code for the firm any more. You fire Leon, Leon is going to go on living and in fact, he'll get himself a very good job elsewhere thanks to the very reference that you are going to give him. And he is going to take his ideas with him. You listed the problems that the firm had before he came on board. The minute he leaves, they come back and it's not as if any combination of the seven stooges is going to do anything for you.

My summary of your situation is as follows:

  1. The firm is in survival mode;
  2. You're not going to do the wrong thing simply because you are being told to do it;
  3. The firm prides itself on fairness. In particular, fairness to the employees. What you are being pressure to do is manifestly unfair;
  4. It's time to throw out the trash.

I am proudest of the impact that I made working full-time for a startup that became, with my contributions, the strongest and largest environmental planning firm in the New York City Metro area. I insisted that we hire on potential, retain on merit and promote on promise. If somebody did right, I didn't care about sex, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation. Or age. If the person measured up, they got the added responsibilities. Whether they were 18 or 80.

I'd rather fire a whole slew of incompetents rather than fire one competent. And everybody who worked with me knew the way I thought. You have to travel light, move fast and hit hard. You don't need cement boots or boat anchors.

3

You basically have a choice to make, the employees have made it clear that they are unwilling to work with Leon. Basically he has humilated them at every turn (even if he didn't intend to) and it is no wonder they are feeling uncomfortable. Your own behavior hasn't helped. You appear to see this guy as a wonder boy and that everyone else on your team is worthless next to him. So if he is so good and they are so bad, then fire the rest of them.

What, oh can't do that because they really aren't worthless or there is too much work for one wonder kid to do? Then start making them feel worthwhile. Stop being a fan boy and recognize that everyone can contribute and those contributions are also valued. Stop just accepting everything this guy says as gospel and listen to the others as well. Use some of their suggestions even if they are not as good as Leon's (You want to work to make them better not make them give up because they can't compete.) Reward small steps in the right direction.

Really one month is not enough time to prove this guy is the best thing in the world and even smart talented people are not right all the time. But shutting everyone else out of the idea generating and decison making process has hurt the rest of the people and ultimately the company. BTW, Leon didn't do this, you did.

Sometimes you also have to realize that gradual change is more effective in the long run. People need time to adjust to new methods. All people are resistant to change. You have to factor that into your planning. You went ahead too fast and frightened the rest of your staff. You thought short term and now you have a long term problem to deal with in that you frightened your entire staff and it is entirely possible that you will have no staff except Leon shortly.

Maybe they don't even understand how to work the way he does. Wouldn't you feel threatened if someone came in and solved some hard problems with a solution you didn't even understand and then every time you suggested anything, the wonder kid shot down the idea and then your boss did what ever came out of wonder kid's mouth as if you were completely irrelevant? And now you are expected to be at his level with no training and no support and not even a good understanding of what you need to do?

There is very little as threatening as having someone come in and feel as if your job is at risk, people need their jobs to continue to have a roof over their heads and food on the table. You hit them in their most vunerable place and now you wonder why they won't work with the guy?

So now you have a situation where this perfectly nice person is hated and everyone wants him gone.

First, start being a manager. Don't just put off tough calls with "I'll think about it" that makes neither Leon or the rest of the team happy.

Why didn't you say to them that Leon has turned your financial situation around and that you have no intention of firing him and that they have to learn to work with him? Why didn't you assure them their jobs were secure (that's what this really is about)? Why didn't you offer them training to get to Leon's level especially concerning the coding stardard you now want to have? Why didn't you divide the duties so that the less talented have something to call their own, while the idea guy is out there generating ideas or creating architecture for the rest to work within? Why didn't you recognize that naturally the rest of your staff would feel threatened and do something to make them feel better before it reached this point?

Think about it, wonder kids are few and far between, it's hard to hire a whole company of them. You need to make sure other people are considered valueable contributors as well.

What you and Leon need to do now is mentor the rest of the staff up to a higher level. You need to start listening to their ideas and to gently lead them to new ideas through asking questions rather than letting Leon shoot them down and automatically do what ever he said. You can assign research on various ways to do things and then have Leon work one on one with some of them. You need to get them involved again.

At this point you may not be able to salvage the situation. By the time employees get so afraid that they ask you fire someone who is doing well, they may already be committed to leaving.

If you are not willing to fire Leon, likely at least some of them will be moving on. So start planning for that.

You also might need to get them in a room together and tell them directly that you screwed up (you did.) and that you did not intend for them to feel that Leon was replacing them. Ask them what they need to to feel comfortable again without firing Leon (make it clear that is not going to happen as you should have when they orginally said something.)

Ask them what they need to feel comfortable with the new coding appraoch. Then give them what they need short of firing Leon. Grovel if you must. Tell them that you do respect them and their abilities. Then show them that is true by your actions. You frightened them and now you need to reassure them that they are safe (and mean it, people can often sense when managers lie about this) or you need to get rid of them immediately which is kinder than waiting.

You need to let them know where they stand and why and what changes they will have to accomodate.

You probably should put your entire schedule on hold until you retrain these people. Make them write code using the new methods as a training exercise and have Leon code review it and help them see how to do it themselves. They may need some more detailed training in basic concepts before getting to the new standard such as you would have given to Cobol programmers at the dawn of Object-oriented programming.

You have given them a new paradigm in how to do things, it is up to you to take the time (and yes during work hours, plan on NOTHING getting acomplished until you do this) to make sure they understand how to work with it. Make them see the benefits as well. Make a contest to reward them for getting this knowledge and give a bonuses to the people in the group (not Leon who you should have rewarded separately already if he really is that good, you don't want to lose the whole staff and them have Leon head out for greener pastures either) who uses this new technique to solve an actual current business problems. Make them see there is something in it for them by adjusting to this change.

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