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My CEO wants to replace our star employee because he is insecure that he will leave after 6 months to a year. As the project manager, I am tasked with finding a replacement.

His mindset is based on the following reasons:

  • employee has repeatedly asked for pay rises and then got one, but was not too happy when he finally got it since it was below what he asked for.

  • we have made compromises with the employee, by giving him the option to work remotely. He is a lot happier now it seems, but that did not go down well with my CEO.

My thoughts on the matter are the following:

  • everyone leaves at some point, there is no need to prematurely push them out of the door.

  • employee is out performing other developers within the team. He is quick, and extremely reliable.

  • employee is a team player, and I seem to get along with him really well.

  • employee brings fresh ideas to our platform.
  • I feel that as a project manager a core duty I have is to identify risks and prevent them from turning into a serious issue. The issue being slower delivery of projects.

To date, I have tried to save my employee's job by deliberately slowing down the HR process or setting the bar extremely high with candidates I do interview. I am concerned that, given our budget which is well below the market rate, we will struggle to replace him with an equivalent. At the same time, I have tried to indirectly convince my boss to keep the employee within the team. Not sure if he has bought the idea.

Am I acting in bad faith for the company?


Update: My boss is now aware of this employees talent, so I have just told him that I will continue my search but given that he has set the bar high, we should only replace him once we find a like for like candidate, he has agreed.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Mar 11 '17 at 12:29
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    "I have tried to save my employee's job" Are you sure the employee wants the job? What if your boss is right and the employee does want to move on to other things (e.g. somewhere that is willing to pay the salary he wants). In trying to keep him on, you could simply be delaying the inevitable. – Pharap Mar 11 '17 at 18:07

13 Answers 13

136

It's not your decision to make; slowing down the process is undermining your boss's decision. You can try and talk to the boss but, at the end of the day, if I were the boss and found out what you were doing, you'd be next to be replaced.

  • Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Mar 11 '17 at 12:30
  • Not his decision to make, but maybe his facts to make. At his risk. – rackandboneman Mar 13 '17 at 13:51
103

I really disagree with advice you're getting that says going along with a bad idea is the noble thing to do if you've taken the 20 minutes to explain that you're going along with a bad idea. With all respect you're the fricking product manager. You signed up for playing office politics and navigating what to do when other people have bad ideas and it is your job to carefully wire a project together while respecting the emotional needs of everyone who has a right to a bad idea. I personally don't give a rat's behind whether your solution is underhanded in principle, but I do care that it sounds to be a really ineffective underhanded solution that puts your credibility at risk while doing nothing for the problem at hand.

One of you needs to get the other on board that you're doing the right thing. You're both critical stakeholders. Just going with the boss's opinion is extremely naive and bosses tend to like hiring people who are a bit more effective at telling them when they may be wrong than that.

So, there is the possibility that you are right and the possibility that you are wrong. Let's proceed.

Does "star employee" mean "good engineer" or "lone wolf"? Because a "good engineer":

  • writes clear code that others can follow
  • has their code reviewed and takes time to explain it
  • aggressively shares knowledge so as to avoid becoming a single point of failure on the team
  • cooperates well with colleagues

while a lone wolf

  • does none of those things and somehow plays office politics to make that look like a strength.

If you have the latter, then they're a mediocre engineer, and if they're a mediocre engineer above pay grade then I have to say I see where your boss is coming from. Your boss may also know things you don't or be bringing experience to handling a "lone wolf" situation that you don't have, and I sort of do have but I obviously do not know the situation that well.

Your boss may also be incompetent, which is now a serious constraint you have to deal with when effectively landing this product. As PM your job is to successfully land the product. If your manager occasionally nukes out critical resources on the basis of vague and nonstandard prejudices then yes that's going to seriously affect your ability to land the product.

You really need to learn how to be effective with your manager. Using somewhat underhanded stalling tactics and going with what they say are equally unsuccessful options (again, you're a PM, handling office politics is part of your job). I would probably do the same thing if I were you on the grounds that "my boss seems to not like hiring good engineers, and this engineer is good which means they are not quite what they are looking for." This is because I am not someone who could be particularly effective in this situation because this nonsense is above my pay grade.

If you don't win this battle with your manager now then you can fight some battle later where nothing you work on ever gets done on time, employees quitting is not your problem and you've already learned your manager likes randomly firing people.

It is also possible that your manager is being ineffective with you. But then, part of your manager's job is affirming to the PM that the resources are available to succeed on the project (and in this case it means the manager needs to assure you that you do not currently have the resources you need).

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    @bobo2000 it's a bit of a myth that ethics is just a trivial thing of doing the ethical thing and forgetting about it. It's not clear which of your actions is most ethical. How ethically you are capable of acting is a function of your business skills (many people don't get this). That's why I said prioritize being more effective. Basically it's just a communication problem with your manager, maybe skim through Crucial Conversations or some similar book – user42272 Mar 9 '17 at 17:07
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    @bobo2000 you also want to make the case that fricking firing people will have downstream morale impact – user42272 Mar 9 '17 at 17:16
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    @bobo2000 sorry, like "client" that's a more general business term than "owns stocks." Basically means someone who has skin in the game in a decision and certain rights in the decision as a result. These rights can be ignored but there are consequences. – user42272 Mar 9 '17 at 17:20
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    I'm frustrated, causing me to look for other jobs. This environment is too tough to manage long term in. I need good resources and a budget to replace them if necessary to do my job well. – bobo2000 Mar 9 '17 at 17:22
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    @bobo2000 You might want to delete your last comment, considering that it is associated with an account publicly associated with you. – Kevin Mar 11 '17 at 18:26
60

Yes, you are acting in bad faith, and you are doing no favors to anyone.

To break it down.

  1. You are going against the direct orders of the CEO
  2. You are putting your own job in jeopardy
  3. You are likely standing in the way of this employee's career advancement.

What? Getting fired is career advancement?

YES

If he is as good as it sounds and the company doesn't want to pay him what he's worth, he should move on to a position more suited to him.

The CEO is there for a reason, and I actually agree with his assessment. He's trying to eliminate risk to the company, that is his job. Your job is to facilitate what the CEO wants.

Do NOT slow things down, but if you want to drop some subtle hints to the employee that he might want to start looking, that's another matter.

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    I'm pretty sure that those subtle hints are subtle ethics breaches. OP has privileged information. – Mindwin Mar 9 '17 at 16:58
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    @Mindwin No ethics breach in not including the employee on mission critical meetings for future projects, or reducing his responsibilities, or moving taks off of his plate. Just sound business practice. If the employee gets a few hints from that.... – Retired Codger Mar 9 '17 at 17:10
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    Richard, i think we have almost enough for another site question there. – Mindwin Mar 9 '17 at 17:13
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    Getting fired from one of my jobs turned out to be one of the best things that has happened in my life, both personally and professionally. – Todd Wilcox Mar 9 '17 at 21:51
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    @ToddWilcox I know of quite a few who said the same thing. Scott Adams of Dilbert fame, for one. – Retired Codger Mar 9 '17 at 22:34
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You should do your job to the best of your ability:

  • find another suitable candidate ASAP
  • don't disclose to the star dev that his days are numbered (breaks confidentiality)

The fact that your CEO is an insecure, power-crazy moron does not diminish your responsibility to execute the task given to you.

OR!

also doing your job, try to:

  • convince the CEO that having star around, even if he's a non-conformist, is good for the company
  • convince the CEO that replacing star with a (near-useless) junior will cause a lot more problems and productivity losses than star causes by being there
  • use hard numbers: Calculate the cost of acquiring and training a junior to be a "good" dev compared with keeping him on. eg assuming:
    • 3 years before a junior is "competent", during which junior does 1/4 of the work star could do (if you're lucky)
    • after 3 years new hire is 50% as effective and you give him a 20% pay raise
    • pay star an extra 50% than a junior right now
    • using these numbers, which are very conservative*, you never make the money back! You'll never break even. You should break open Excel and put some numbers in yourself so you're confident, then show the CEO. If he doesn't listen, show the board (and apply for the soon to be vacant CEO role)

I can almost guarantee that the star developer will be on the scene after being "moved on", for two main reasons:

  • unfair dismissal: I can't imagine grounds on which the star with be fired. It's clear that he's doing his job well and in and agreed manner (remotely etc). He will have grounds for legal action and will likely win
  • if he goes, your company will suddenly realise all the valuable stuff he did, and all the knowledge he had, and you'll have to ask him to do consulting work at contract rates of probably many times the hourly rate you're now paying him

Great developers are gold and your CEO should be doing everything he can to hold on to him. Firing him is going to teach your company a tough lesson when you start spending more and more time explaining why you're missing deadlines and getting so many bugs. Even if the new dev is paid less, your costs will go way up.

If it ain't broke, don't fix it.

  • Yes, exactly my point. My boss does not seem to realise that replacing good developers is hard, and its frustrating for me, because he is pushing to do this by hiring unpaid interns. I would not be so strongly for keeping him if he wasn't any good. – bobo2000 Mar 9 '17 at 15:19
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    "Doing your job" would include telling him this. An intern will be useless for the first 6 months while you train him (btw making him more marketable, so he'll leave if he finds better cash, so you paid for his training and got nothing back for it), and it will be years before he's "good", and will never be as good as the star. Top devs are 60 times more productive then junior devs, but are only paid twice as much. The star dev is great value even at "high" rates, pay him so much he won't think of leaving. You should find a replacement for the CEO instead - he's not fit to run a business. – Bohemian Mar 9 '17 at 15:29
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    While true, having the company learn a hard lesson will directly negatively affect OP so I can't recommend this answer. – user30031 Mar 9 '17 at 17:23
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    @bobo2000 Perhaps worth noting that unpaid interns will be out the door far more quickly than this employee would. Not to mention that at least half of them will produce between nothing useful and stuff that is so bad it actively hurts your ability to develop in the future. If "unpaid interns" are the replacement for this guy, I have to honestly question whether the motives you've presented in your question are the actual motives of the CEO. It sounds more like a salary dump than concerns about him leaving. – jpmc26 Mar 10 '17 at 0:21
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    "Your responsibility to execute the task given to you". What about the responsibility not to break the law? In most nations, what is described here is unfair dismissal and puts the company in legal jeopardy. If the board or shareholders discovered that, they'd be furious and the CEO would himself be fired. – Jimmy Breck-McKye Mar 10 '17 at 10:02
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Am I acting in bad faith for the company?

Yes. And I suspect you know this, but I'm not sure if you care. Certainly you know that the choice to hire or not hire a replacement is not your decision to make, it's your manager's.

You attempted to convince your boss to change his mind and failed.

You know what you are being asked to do, yet you are deliberately finding a sneaky way to prevent your bosses request from being fulfilled.

I'm guessing that in your heart you know you are acting in bad faith. And I'm guessing that you wouldn't tell your boss what you are actually doing.

And you have indicated in other posts that you aren't happy with this boss or company and are actively looking elsewhere. That may be at the root of your actions. I'm not a psychologist, but I'm guessing you are projecting your own feelings regarding your own situation on this employee. Your bullet points about your "thoughts on the matter" seem like you could have said them about yourself.

Are you trying to get yourself fired?

4

...[T]he problem with my boss is that he sets the bar high for me...If it turns out I get rid of this guy and replace him with somebody who isn't any good, my boss will hold me accountable for the bad hire's performance not the developer. I have tried to indirectly convince my boss to keep the employee within the team.

You need to be direct.

Your CEO doesn't seem to realize that they can't have everything they're asking for. They've asked you to hire an employee who:

  1. is a team player, a high performer, and brings fresh ideas
  2. doesn't want to be paid their market value
  3. also doesn't want any benefits or perks to make up for being underpaid
  4. won't leave the company

The existence of such a person is transient at best. A high performer who initially doesn't know what they're worth will eventually figure it out. Then you're back in the same situation you're in now: an employee who isn't happy with their pay and the CEO resenting whatever concessions you do make to keep them from leaving.

You should have a meeting with your boss to explain what it would cost to replace them. Have both salary data and any data you have on this employees performance with you. Explain that you cannot hire someone equivalent to your current employee below their actual market value. Then show the level of performance you'd lose by hiring someone who isn't as good.

Your CEO may know this employee is good but they clearly don't think they're worth the cost of retaining them. You need to make a real case that they are worth it and set realistic expectations about who you'll be able to hire as a replacement.,

BTW,

It wouldn't be an issue if I had the budget to replace him, but I don't have any. Unpaid interns.

I don't know if this meant that your CEO is actually suggesting you replace this employee with an unpaid intern or not but if you're in the United States replacing a paid employee with an unpaid intern is a violation of The Fair Labor Standards Act.

3

You may be acting in bad faith, but I believe you are also doing your job to the best of your ability and trying to retain the best resources.

Practically the exact same scenario happened to me, I had stars on a project that where pushed to quit by my CEO because he plays office politics so that people quit themselves instead of firing anyone. He even pushed the same "just hire unpaid interns" which to me did not make any sort of sense if the project was to be successful. In the end the project continues but morale is at an all time low over 8 employees have quit, and it has taken over 3 more months to reach the production stage.

  • I can see that happening, and this is the thing, a huge part of my job as a project manager is to identify RISKS, it's why I keep a RAID log. Part of my frustration currently is that the risks I identify are not being taken seriously, then I am being made accoutable for the issues. Has your CEO made you accountable for the poor performers and threatened to fire you? – bobo2000 Mar 10 '17 at 13:26
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    To be honest he has suggested that there are other people that can do my job, as to say I could have you replaced quickly, again playing the office politics but I did not react to that in my case, and YES he does fault me and holds me accountable for not taking my suggestions and warnings seriously. What I did is document all my suggestions and try to get written denial. Document your efforts even if they are not approved because you cannot allow your reputation to suffer because your CEO is not listening. Let him make the mistakes and have your evidence in writing. – user65856 Mar 10 '17 at 21:48
  • Thanks, nice to know I am not the only PM out there experiencing this shit. I am keeping a RAID log, where I am documenting all risks. I am not a very confrontational person, so it is frustrating I am being driven to being confrontational with my CEO. – bobo2000 Mar 10 '17 at 23:11
2

Covertly sabotaging actions or commands of others is - at least - considered to be bad form.

It can still be worth the risk under some extreme circumstances, were it's a last ditch effort to prevent something very bad from happening. Now let's take a step back and look if that's the case in your situation:

The boss has acceptable reasons for terminating the employee, and you know the reasons. There may be more reasons you do not know about. Yet you think not terminating the employee is the better choice.

What I see here is that you disagree with your boss' decision, but you don't really know if your decision is better or not. This situation is very very far from a situation that warrants a mutiny.

2

I am concerned given our budget which is well below the market rate, we will struggle to replace him with an equivalent.

This seems to be your main problem: you are unlikely to find someone of equal ability that will work for less than the current employee, who is already working at below market value and is unhappy about it. And the new person will take a while to get up to the same speed.

So maybe an alternative strategy might work (depending on your workplace structure, whether you can convince your boss, and if his prediction about the imminent leaving of the star employee turns out to be true):

Rather than popping and pushing the top of the stack (to use programming analogies), why not add a most junior, inexperienced (and therefore cheap) employee at the other side of the queue, and if the top employee leaves, give a promotion to everyone on the team (may include small raises after they have proven themselves in their new roles). This might potentially have the side effect of boosting morale for those staying behind. But it also depends on the star leaving soon, else it might have been better to give him a raise out of the funds that would have been used for the fresh-in's salary (and raises).

Replacing a star has other problems: the replacement may have equal ability, but he may not have equal standing with the old-timers at the workplace, which is much more difficult to quantify or achieve. It takes time to learn the ropes, not only technically with the system, but also in office politics, interpersonal relationships and reputation.

My personal opinion is that a boss's job is to identify talent, retain talent, and develop talent in the average-talented (most of us). Your boss however seems to think that talent is both static and fungible.

2

Yes, you are acting in bad faith - even though it is clear you are trying to do what you think is right.

Your CEO recognizes the risks of having any team dependent upon a single star employee that it cannot afford to keep.

He is trying to protect the company.

Your CEO recognizes:

  1. Your company doesn't have a lot of money (at least for developers).

  2. That this employee has a lot of talent.

  3. The reality that this person will eventually leave as there isn't enough money to keep him.

  4. That it is better for the company to begin a replacement search now, under controlled conditions, rather than waiting for the unkonwn day when the star employee leaves.

By going against your CEO, you are exposing your company to increased risk.

Small organizations - or organizations with small budgets - need to be realistic when they find cheap, superstar employees. You can hire them, but don't expect them to stay for as long as typical employees - and don't become dependent upon them.

  • Or you can use the star employee to help get the company off the ground, so that you are able to afford to keep him or find a replacement and properly pay him? – bobo2000 Mar 10 '17 at 14:06
  • @bobo2000 - yes that would be a valid strategy if your company is a startup that would be that affected by a single person. If that is the case, you should add that in your question as that is important information. You could also suggest that to your CEO as a strategic reason to keep the the employee. That may change his mind. – user45269 Mar 10 '17 at 14:11
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This is the wrong way to solve the problem. My understanding is that you have a mission-critical employee who is underpaid and might leave so you and the CEO are going behind their back to get rid of them. The employee has the wrong job. You need to have them focus on mentoring and coaching the team around them.

It is unethical to fire someone because you're afraid they're going to leave because you don't think you can afford them. Suck it up and tell them the truth, bring them on at a higher level and get over the notion of "acting in bad faith to the company." You have other ethical obligations that supersede that company's misguided interests.

Were I you, I'd quit working with that kind of CEO ASAP.

0

You should not go behind your manager like you're doing. Your job is now at high risk. Even though you're motives are good.

Instead, be clear, in a very tactful way, with your manager that this person is the best resource you have on this project, and the project's eventual success and completion time depends on his presence. And be clear that if you do remove this person then the project's lower success level and longer completion time is the responsibility of the CEO, not you. Then tell your manager that you'll send him or her an email summarizing your conversation. Then print that email and take it home and keep it safe!

If this programmer does lose the job this way then be sure he understands that you will provide an excellent reference. If he ends up in a better company then perhaps he'll introduce you!

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    In order for the OP to take full responsibility for his team, he needs to be able to make hiring decisions. That said, blaming the guy who signs your checks is not going to fix things. To that end, djechlin's answer is more constructive. – employee-X Mar 9 '17 at 20:31
  • "you cannot choose to pass off responsibility" -- you'll also have to explain why removing this person at your own pace is so damaging to the project, given that projects should be at least somewhat resilient to people leaving at zero notice (by choice, illness, etc). If replacing this guy adds 10% to the project, and the CEO is happy with that trade-off, then really there's no issue of "responsibility" (for which read: blame). Strategic decision, you disagreed, he made the call. Whether it's morally acceptable to replace him is a completely separate issue from how it affects deadlines. – Steve Jessop Mar 9 '17 at 21:34
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Yes, you are acting in bad faith for the company

Why are his salary demands not met? I would guess finances. To answer this I would need all sorts of information about your profitability and such and you probably know the situation better.

Why is it a problem that a person may leave soon? Using him in key roles is a risk. It may be critical that there is an immediate replacement for him. If he is already leaving, it is too late to start looking for such. During a project if the main architect, or a manager leaves, the impact to the project is huge, no matter how well documented standardized procedures they are only to mitigate the problems of such risk.

I have seen top performers being put as in-house trainers or consultants and to do some small tasks for a few months before they leave. This is because the time before they are leaving is too short for a new project.

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    We are interviewing candidates, but finances/budget means that I have less of a talent pool to choose from. Replacing strong developers is hard, they are normally very expensive, we are very lucky that we have a good developer like him on board given how much we are paying him. I am trying to assess the risk of losing him against the value he brings to the company relative to other candidates. – bobo2000 Mar 10 '17 at 11:26

protected by Lilienthal Mar 10 '17 at 12:39

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