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I've got a teammate that fails to follow through with his responsibilities on a regular basis. He is extremely knowledgeable from a tech standpoint and understands the code very well. When he is motivated to do his job, the results are at a minimum admirable.

Problem is, he often will tell me something will be done, and then it doesn't get done and the next day there is a reason. And then the next day there is a reason. Sometimes there is no reason provided at all.

Obviously this is affecting team performance, and I am having to answer to my bosses about it. I do my best to shield the individuals on my team from direct criticism, instead deflecting it towards myself. At this point, I know that I can't keep covering for him and I'm already being stretched a little to thin to follow up on his items (he is one of the more senior members, I spend a fair amount of time helping our junior devs through their tasks).

Now, here's the conflict for me. Our company recently went through some light lay-offs, and I am 95% sure that if he is removed from my team he will be let go as well. This bothers me for three reasons:

  1. I don't feel that he should be fired. The project we are on is not fun, the client we work for is frustrating in their methodology. I wouldn't blame a single person on my team for quitting, and in fact I tell my boss every day that I will likely be looking for a new job if they seek to extend my contract past the end of this year. We signed up for new dev with this company and got dumped on a support and maintenance engagement that, in my opinion, nobody deserves to be doing as staff augmentation. This is not standard for our company.
  2. I've had to fire people in the past in other roles. I strongly believe that since I'm the one who is going to push that cart down the rail here, I should be the one to take responsibility on it as well. It is hard for me to say "he's no good" and then let someone else deal with it.
  3. I think a different project for him, where he could get back into writing code instead of bug/data fixes, would be very beneficial for his morale. He's been stuck on 2 projects across the last 2 years that have largely been seen as "trouble children" within our company.

At this point, I am likely going to have another discussion with him about the importance of getting work done and not misleading the client about when things will be completed. We all slack off some here, as the environment we work in is very laid back (no one will ever question why you are looking at Youtube or how you spent each minute of your day). I tend to lead my team in a results over method mindset -- that is, I don't care how you get your work done and how you spend your day as long as you're giving fair estimates on work effort and completing the work, blockers aside.

What are the next steps I need to take here?

  • 1
    If they are anyway unwilling to change teams the options are already reduced. Then your only chance is to make things less laid back for them or accept the consequences (keeping everything the way it is or having to fire them). – skymningen Jun 27 '17 at 12:42
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    How transparent are these "reasons" for not having the work done? Are you sure they aren't legitimate reasons for legitimate delays? The way you write it, it's hard to tell if this is the case, but in my experience coding can sometimes hit unexpected delays or complications that legitimately extend the time required. These reasons can often be difficult to foresee ahead of time (ie: bug hunting, searching the internet for an adequate plugin to do something, etc.) – Steve-O Jun 27 '17 at 14:23
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    Sounds like time management, organizational issues, and, to me (because I am likewise afflicted), typical ADD, especially if the work is tedious and uninteresting as you have indicated. He puts off tackling the mundane and tedious work because he does not find it engaging or stimulating. – PoloHoleSet Jun 27 '17 at 15:10
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    @Fattie it depends on the location though. For example in Finland, you will likely be unemployed for 3 - 6 months as a developer of any level short of a famous rockstar dev. Mostly because the market is saturated and demand is low. – Juha Untinen Jun 27 '17 at 18:38
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    Software development is a drastically distinct function from software support. Sometimes, some people are good at dev (planned, highly focused, motivated to finish goals) are not so good at support (spontaneous changes in workflow, multitasking, having to cope with apparently unreasonable demands from customer). Clearly, being signed up for dev and having to do support is affecting. Have you thought about assigning him a dev role, getting another person for support, and having him train the new guy? – sampathsris Jun 28 '17 at 3:53

16 Answers 16

150

Be Blunt

Tell him the situation - he needs to get his output up to specs or he'll have to leave the team, and then tell him you are worried that if that happens, the company may let him go.

Tell him you don't want that to happen, but he needs to help you by doing the work in a timely fashion.

  • 16
    Threatening to let someone go, who apparently does not really want to work there anymore, will usually only add to frustration and adds a perception of injustice. – Daniel Jun 27 '17 at 14:49
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    If they don't really want to work there, this would surely lead to a generally positive conclusion, @Daniel - as they can leave. As a manager you support your team, yes, but you don't hold their hand - they must have responsibility for their own actions. – Rory Alsop Jun 27 '17 at 15:23
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    @Daniel, It isn't a threat - it is a reality. We all have crappy projects here and there. This is one of those projects. The OP cannot change that and has deadlines to meet or else the OP gets in trouble. The OP cares about the person, but also doesn't want to get fired themselves, therefore a frank conversation between the two is the fastest way to (a) find out what is going on and (b) get to a solution. – user45269 Jun 27 '17 at 15:54
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    @Prinz it's pretty hard (I would say impossible) to convey "if you don't perform you will get fired" as not a threat. First discussion should not mention anything about "other team", "fired", or anything of the sort. "seek first to understand, then to be understood" – user1199 Jun 27 '17 at 16:42
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    This is all not a question of fact´s but perception. let me cite Dale Carnegie: Criticism is futile because it puts a person on the defensive and usually makes them strive to justify themselves. Criticism is dangerous, because it wounds a person's precious pride, hurts their sense of importance, and arouses resentment. – Daniel Jun 27 '17 at 17:50
77

This strongly sounds to my like "inner resignment" has already happened. This is a tragedy personally as well as from a management perspective as this is also lost "human capital" which is undervalued in most company's. It is very hard to recover someone from this state. Luckily, you seem to be a very considerate and open leader.

From his perspective the company probably does him harm by putting his precious talent to work in such a "stupid" way and it is only fair that he takes his time. So if you punish or scold him you only add to the perceived stupidity. Also, threatening that he will be fired probably does not shock him very much, because some part of him actually hopes he will get fired anyway.

If I´d really want to keep this guy, first thing I would do, is showing him real appreciation on the cases where he does good work and also try to highlight the value he creates for the company even with this tedious assignment.

Secondly I would try to get him the most difficult task I can and maybe get him in some sort of concurrency-situation where he can really show his skill.

Maybe you can introduce some new toy or Methodology to tackle the same old tasks with?

Try to get the team to come up with improvement on how the could handle the same old work?

Let them peer-program even if only for a day per week?

Give him an junior staff member he should look after?

Also, chances are that he still can not recover and needs a fresh start somewhere else.

  • 25
    +1 This advice would be amazing if more managers especially in IT understood it. I have been in this position as you described and have been exactly as the person described in OP. This should have more up votes. It may not be the solution for everything, but this answer pretty much covers why 90% of the time a coworker becomes lazy and unmotivated. – ggiaquin16 Jun 27 '17 at 20:53
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    "This is a tragedy personally as well as from a management perspective as this is also lost "human capital" which is undervalued". On the positive side, it'll be easy to find someone else who wants to work there, so it's a win-win; he gets to leave the company, and the company gets to employ someone who wants to work there. – bye Jun 29 '17 at 8:21
  • This sounds like a good plan A. If this does not work, move to plan B which is the blunt option. – Thorkil Værge Jun 29 '17 at 11:25
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    I've found that for tasks that are a huge slog it's often helpful to have someone else to go through it with - if nothing else for moral support. – Wayne Werner Jun 29 '17 at 17:35
  • @Dr. Eval: Just wanted to point out that, while it mighty be easy to find someone new (not here in germany but ...) The domain-knowlege of that person is still lost for good. For long-term employees this this can easily be worth a multitude of their annual wage. – Daniel Jul 3 '17 at 10:42
37

Don't Be Blunt

I'd like to counter the "be blunt" answer.

If it is a small company on cut-throat financials, then the "be blunt" approach might be acceptable. But if it is a larger company...

By stating "you will be fired if you do not start delivering" as advocated in the top answer, you are pitting yourself against the employee.

A commenter above said "it's not a threat, its a reality!". False dichotomy. It would be BOTH a threat and a reality. Communicated like this the threat is that YOU are not going to shield the employee from realizing the risk.

Good luck with that frame!

This is, of course, the approach often taken. It's easy and it makes the employee quit, thereby "solving" the issue (until the next person...)!

I think there is a better way.

This is likely a motivational issue with multiple causal (work and non-related) factors. Some or all of the causes might be outside of the control of the employee.

As a manager looking out for the company it is your role to choose a frame of engagement that has the best chance of a win-win.

Why force out someone who you know can be valuable?

By choosing NOT to "be blunt", but rather to instead focus on how to get the employee "back to productive" you might create a win-win. This might involve pair programming. It will certainly involve speaking to him and discussing the situation carefully and sympathetically.

Of course, everything comes to an end. If, having worked together on reaching productivity you cannot achieve it, then you can part on good terms and maybe he will return when he is productive again.

Again, if this is a small company with very tight financials, then people will expect and be more accepting of a more cut-throat outcome.

  • 9
    Your suggestions, while positive, miss a few points: (1) The OP is not the person's Manager, the OP is a Lead, which limits what he or she can and cannot do, (2) there is a time constraint - the OP can no longer cover or hide the other person's failures from Management and therefore either the OP will be in trouble or the teammate - or the teammate needs to improve, (3) the OP clearly states that this project is so bad that even they will quit if it is extended, (4) Even though it is that crappy of a project, everyone else is pulling their weight, except this one person. – user45269 Jun 27 '17 at 21:50
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    They are part of one team. It's not a race between team members but instead a cooperative endeavor. Being "blunt" will likely cause him to quit or "go negative" which is a lose/lose. He can do good work and has a great deal of knowledge. The frame of engagement is as important as the reality being discussed. Just two alternatives to "being blunt" include re-organising the team to share responsibilities differently, and speaking to both the employee and management to discuss the possibility of a sideways move. Neither of these options is predicated on burning a bridge by being blunt. – Ben Jun 28 '17 at 12:52
34

I had a manager that loved to quote Art of War. Usually wrong. He especially loved the story about killing the emperor's wives due disobedience. He usually "forgot" the part about general taking responsibility and explaining the task properly. It's your responsibility to utilize this guy to his full potential, and until you exhausted all avenues of motivating him, you can not discard him. Did you talk with him? Did you try to figure out some interesting tasks for him? Did you try to give him a leading role to mentor juniors? Did you talk with other managers/leads to see if they have more use for him?

From another point of view: if you go to your manager and say you don't need him, it would look bad on you also, at least try to refer him for another position.

Finally, if you exhausted all these avenues, you can not afford to be sentimental, it will backfire. If he needs to go, then you need to take the action, the longer you wait, the harder it will be for everyone!

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    Pairing him up with a junior is a good idea. But need to keep an eye on it because if he is a bad apple he could ruin the junior too. +1 though – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 27 '17 at 16:05
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    @Danikov Sun Tzu's wisdom is all about how to take your death march as far as possible. If you're in a situation where it is useful, you usually screwed up getting there. – fectin Jun 28 '17 at 0:34
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    Sorry I disagree, interesting work, mentoring etc are rewards for good work. They should be given to people that are keeping their heads down and getting work done on this project despite it not being fun or exciting. Anything less than that is pampering to a crying baby and will go down worse with the rest of the team. – ChrisFletcher Jun 28 '17 at 10:57
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    @Sorin I agree you have to try and motivate him and encourage his enthusiasm. And there might be a better place for him. But those actions do not happen in a vacuum. If the project is as bad as the OP says no one on the team is enjoying it, you're sending a signal to others that by not working you can improve your situation and get preferential treatment. That will demotivate them. If the employee isn't happy they should be trying to solve their own situation by asking for a team change etc – ChrisFletcher Jun 28 '17 at 11:27
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    @fectin I think you've been reading the wrong book - AOW is about avoiding the deathmarch entirely. – J... Jun 28 '17 at 14:28
25

There is someone you need to go to and say "please take this guy off my team", right? And presumably "please give me a replacement" as well? I suggest you say something completely different to them. Something like this:

I'm a bit worried about X. None of us like this maintenance contract, but it seems to be hitting him harder than others. He really needs some long days writing code and less of this bugfix quick response work. I'm starting to see a decline in performance and I don't think it's something that can improve by me just telling him to do better. Can we find a role for him that is more fun? I think he's done his duty on this unpleasant contract and deserves some fun work for a while. He's a senior dev, he writes great code, and I would hate to lose him. Whether he quits because he hates this contract or we fire him because he's underperforming on this contract, either way the company will lose a good developer. Is there someone we could swap into the team who likes a more unpredictable and reactive workflow, someone who is getting bored on a long development project, so we can make two workers happy and keep our best people?

There are people who don't like to write code on the same long project day after day. I am one. Find one in your business and you may be able to find a very happy solution.

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    I could see people taking "more fun" in a wrong sort of way ("why should he get something more fun if he's not performing well?"), so you could say something wonderfully generic like "a better fit" instead. – Tikhon Jelvis Jun 29 '17 at 2:04
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    I like this because it's open, honest and productive for everyone involved. – JollyJoker Jun 29 '17 at 8:11
14

As a manager, it is not your job to protect this developer from the inevitable outcome of his sub-par performance. It is your job to get him to perform better. Everybody is on a path, for some the path is up and for others it is out. You need to make sure that your developer knows that his own actions will determine which path he is on.

I tend to lead my team in a results over method mindset

It doesn't appear this way to me. This employee is clearly not delivering results, or we wouldn't be answering your question. While you may have great respect for his ability, potential only will get you so far. These are the hard parts of being a manager, but you need to hold all of your team to the standard of delivering results. By not holding this developer to that standard, you are sending a message to the other developers that they don't need to deliver results.

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    This. The question doesn't mention anything about things he tried to get the employee to perform better (and lists several reasons why he is probably unhappy and possible bored). If the employee is fired for not doing his job here, then the same should be true of the manager who didn't manage. – RemcoGerlich Jun 28 '17 at 12:03
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    This is the best answer. – Tony Ennis Jun 29 '17 at 22:18
10

There are many different kinds of programmers,

  • you have the creative types,
  • you have the meticulous/check-everything-three-times types,
  • you have the hacker types,
  • you have the design freak types,

and a good company needs all of them, in a balance that depends on the kind of work your company does.

Putting the wrong kind of developer on the wrong kind of project will delay the project and disrupt relations with the developer.

The advice "to be blunt" - and to attempt to shoehorn a wrong person in the wrong place - is only correct if there's no possibility of a swap with another team so that both teams are better off, and if you believe the person is capable to make this transition.

To be poetic, you might have a bird on your team, and you're frustrated because it runs badly.

On the other hand, if your company has no use for birds and will not have use in the near future, your duty is clear.

  • From the technical point of view this is what makes more sense...how about a compromise where he does not have to be dedicated to problematic projects 100% of the time? – Rui F Ribeiro Jun 28 '17 at 14:10
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    @RuiFRibeiro exactly, wasting talent where that particular talent is useless is wasteful, expensive, frustrating and counter-productive. Also is paying the talent where there's no use for that particular talent. – bbozo Jun 28 '17 at 16:13
8

As someone who was once in your developer's position, I can say that it is very important that you talk to him about it, as there may be some underlying medical condition that is going untreated.

In my case, I had a fairly serious case of Adult ADD, combined with a serotonin deficiency that had gone undiagnosed since childhood. I manifested as motivation and memory problems when I had to work on long, uninteresting tasks. I was completely unaware of it but was able to subconsciously compensate to some degree for a long time.

Eventually the demands of the job overcame my ability to compensate, and my performance began to suffer, until I was eventually placed on a performance improvement plan. Suddenly having to face and examine the reasons for my behavior, and the consequences, I decided that there might be something wrong, and I went to see my doctor about the focus and memory issues.

After a few months of fiddling with medications, the turn-around has been pretty drastic. My supervisors were extremely pleased with the change in behavior, I came out of the PIP successfully, and haven't been having any more issues. My quality of life, both at home, and at work, is significantly better, all thanks to my supervisor bringing the problem to my attention, and forcing me to deal with things that I hadn't consciously realized were problems.

4

If he doesn't like the job/client and neither does anyone else, does he really think anyone wants to do their work and his? If he doesn't like the work, suggest he quit instead of being a burden to you and the team.

You'd be doing him a favor if the end result is giving him an opportunity to get a better job. You are accountable to the entire team as well as your employer.

Personally, I believe people who don't do their job are firing themselves. If your job requires you to make sure you have people who get their work done, I don't think you're doing your job. Do your job and make him accountable as well as making him face the consequences.

  • 2
    @JoeStrazzere - Seriously, I can't imagine taking a job and even considering not doing what is required. – user8365 Jun 28 '17 at 12:25
4

You have said this is not standard for the company. I'd take a closer look at how the unpleasant contract happened in the first place. Sales folks are glad to make a sale (contract). They need feedback about this one being a lemon. Owners/shareholders like to see revenue and aren't likely to change much if no one is screaming (I'm not suggesting screaming).

If the people who will be bringing in the next contract work understand what makes a difference to you and your team, they stand a better chance of not repeating the current mistake. If they can offer you hope in this area, you can offer hope to your team, the problem dev in particular.

If you tell him his results just aren't enough, but he has time to solve that problem, offering him good work down the line could help him get through this.

3

Move the problem to a social level by explaining your personal dilemma to him.

First, tell him that you are very satisfied with his work. If you are not, at least tell him that you think he is a bright mind. Be positive. That is important. He may not know it, but even if he does, this tells him that you want him to stay part of your team.

Next, tell him, that, despite his excellent work, the fact that he is not reliable creates a personal problem for you. Explain why. Finally, ask for his help.

This will (hopefully) put him in a situation where he

  • realizes what he does to you
  • wants to actively act in order to support you

For many people, "the company" is something too abstract to feel personally obligated to - especially in bigger companies. Make him understand that his behavior is problematic for you as a person.

You may also speak in the team's name, but it is more authentic and more effective to speak for yourself.

  • Apologies if I came off as being satisfied with his work. He is a very bright person and I've seen him do good work, but it has not been, by any means, satisfactory or excellent. I do understand why he probably doesn't care, this is not the same as being okay with him not caring. – USER_8675309 Jun 29 '17 at 15:23
  • I see. Nevertheless, it might be a good approach to make your dilemma his dilemma as described in my answer (replace expressing your satisfaction by extolling his bright mind). If he does not care, well, I can see no reason why you should be worried that he might be fired. I mean, sorry, he's paid for good work, not for just being able to possibly doing good work if he wanted to. – not2savvy Jun 29 '17 at 16:22
2

I do not know how much the above answers about persuading/convincing/relocating the employee may apply, but if they fail I would not definitelly tell him that he was to be fired.

Cons:

  • The employee may take that on you personally (but that comes with the management position, so you should get used to).

  • HR may not like you spilling the beans about it.

  • HR may change their mind about it once he leaves your team.

  • The employee may react in an unexpected way (for example, filling a discrimination/harassment lawsuit in the hope that he later may claim that he was fired due to the lawsuit).

  • Etc.

Let HR do the HR work. I bet you would not like it if you saw commits from HR staff in your repository, isn't it? The same principle works in the other direction.

Your level of decision is that of keeping the employee in your team or not, so only mention that ("If you do not change your attitude I will be forced to ask for you to be replaced"). If you want to ring an alarm bell, do it without being too assertive so you do not overstep your authority ("I am not sure if there is a good place for you in other teams/if other team leaders will be interested in you").

  • Or, better yet, talk this issue with HR and let them inform you about what you can or cannot do. – SJuan76 Jun 28 '17 at 22:06
0

You should first talk to him about the issue then start an evaluation program where you set performance or behavior goals that he must achieve if he wants to stay on your team. Also let him know that you want to help him achieve this goal and keep working with him but if he doesn't he might be laid off. If he is not cooperative then you will be better with him off the team

  • 9
    Pip's are rarely a positive motivator. – IDrinkandIKnowThings Jun 27 '17 at 15:54
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    You have to be really careful with this as the formal HR process for this is usually a thinly-veiled evidence-gathering mission as a prelude to dismissal rather than any genuine attempt to fix performance. A similar process may be perceived as such. – Danikov Jun 27 '17 at 16:23
  • i was thinking about something just between the two of them, focusing more on goals than the formality or the evaluation. But eventually he will need to decide if he want him on the team or not, and that process could give him the input to make that decision. I agree with the other answers that he could talk to other managers to maybe find more interesting projects for him – Homerothompson Jun 27 '17 at 17:26
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    Oooh a PIP. The "You're going to get fired, this will eventually give us the reason to do it without risk of getting sued for wrongful termination and give you time to polish your resume beforehand" plan. – DLS3141 Jun 28 '17 at 0:21
  • This is another good answer. It cuts to the chase. Dude needs to shape up or be off the team. If this means a person of authority lays his off, that's not your business. – Tony Ennis Jun 29 '17 at 22:22
0

I'm answering based on my impression on your problem: you don't want the employee fired (because they're smart, and presumably valuable if they were in a different role) but they're not productive on your team, and you can't afford that.

Instead of going to management and saying "I need to replace this team member" (which makes him sound useless), go to him first and talk to him about him moving to another team where he could be more useful. An employee and team lead/manager going to the higher ups together, and saying "hey, my skill set doesn't really fit the current role, and I'd be more valuable to the company on team X instead" (with the lead/manager supporting the move) is substantially more positive. If your company has official rotation program, than that'd also be a good way to sell the move. It also gives the employee something to look forward too, which might improve their work in the meantime.

Of course, if there's nowhere else in the company for the employee to go, this doesn't work.

-1

Tell him that he should quit if he does not like his job so much that he can not/will not improve, since he is putting you personally in a difficult situation. And it is not fair for you to take flak for his performance. Note that this more risky for you since you are engaging in a "personal" stuff at work and you are being honest and that is usually considered a big no no...

Lame boilerplate answer is the opposite: we have this PIP for you, we want you to stay in the team, team depends on you, I am here for you during PIP, bla bla...

-1

Create metrics for his performance. If he gives an estimate, record the time he provided as the estimate and the time it actually took to get it to the point when he thought he finished and the time it took until the project was deliverable. Figure out what the average ratio and 2 standard deviations of those times are. Still ask him for estimates, but expect his work to be done based on your estimates rather than based on his.

protected by Community Jun 29 '17 at 13:53

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