I had to fire someone and I feel like a failure — Ask a Manager

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A reader writes:

I’m in a position that I’ve never been in before. In 2018, I took on a really exciting role with a new company building a team from the ground up. I hired a handful of people, and got to work setting up the new team and really helping to grow a new business. This was a first for me, it was a challenge, and I loved it!

At the beginning of 2019, I hired Bob. Bob had more than 15 years of experience in the industry. His last position read almost word for word what I was looking for. He knocked the interview out of the park! He had a great personality, talked about how much he loved digging into things, and generally sold himself in a beautiful manner. Everyone who interviewed him was so excited.

Bob started at 9:00 on a Monday and completely disappeared at 3:45 that afternoon. I was in a meeting, and when I got out of the meeting everyone was looking for him. When he returned to work on Tuesday, I reiterated that because we are support staff, we are expected to be on shift from 9 am to 5 pm Monday through Friday. Because we support people globally, I’ll actually work longer hours to support our overseas partners, and I pick up the weekend shifts because I’ve always hated managers who make their team work the weekends. Bob was unhappy that he could not leave the the office at 3:45 each day. He complained about the commute, and having to drive home in traffic. Unfortunately, we could make a no concessions and he agreed to work from 9-5. From that point on, he complained and moped around the office and people started talking to me and other staff members about how Bob constantly looked miserable. I spoke with him and I made as many concessions as I could, including letting him leave at 4:45 instead of 5. My boss also spoke with him, and during that meeting Bob said he loved the job!

Unfortunately in mid-2019, I got very sick. By September, I was forced to work from home 100% as I was going through multiple rounds of chemotherapy. Not once did I or my team miss a deadline. However, in mid-2020 when I finished up chemotherapy and moved on to radiation and surgery, my team had a long meeting with me without Bob: Apparently, as I was working from home, Bob had taken the opportunity to go back to leaving at 3:45 pm and disappearing throughout the course of the day, and it only became worse in early 2020 as we all went work-from-home. He was not responsive to emails, texts, or instant messages, and the staff was covering a large part of his work because they didn’t want to pile more on me while I was undergoing chemo.

In July 2020, with beating cancer on the horizon, I had a long conversation with Bob about what I had been told not only by my team but my other teams that interact with mine. Bob was defensive, he tried to gaslight me, he tried to blame his inability to work largely on the fact that I was not in the office to hold his hand (his words). This man with more than 15 years of experience in the industry had the audacity to tell me that he was an entry-level employee and that he required constant handholding, and that in no way shape or form had he ever indicated that he had experience with our work. I pulled his résumé with him, and we line by line went over what the job description was, what we had talked about in the job interview, what his training had been, and what his history was according to his résumé.

After a few weeks of him badmouthing me, badmouthing the team, disappearing throughout the course of the day, taking random time off because his kid was sick, because his wife was out of work and she was depressed, and because he had emergencies at home, we had another conversation with him, me, my boss, and HR. We laid out the job description and his assignments, and we were very understanding about the sick kid, the depressed wife, the issues at home … let’s face it, 2020 was a dumpster fire. My own husband was out of work, my 17-year-old was doing her senior year in high school from home, it was a mess, we all acknowledge it and we made every effort to support our staff during the year from hell.

Over the next few weeks, Bob continued his downward spiral. Everything was a fight, every assignment wasn’t in his wheelhouse, everything that we needed to be done for the group he couldn’t do. It was just an absolute mess.

We spoke with legal, HR, individual attorneys, and at the end of the discussions we decided that we had no choice but to terminate him. However we wanted to give him one last chance to be the person we interviewed. So we put him on a six-week performance improvement plan. We outlined every piece of work that he needed to do. We outlined timelines, who he could go to for help, what he could do if he was running behind and needed assistance.

At the end of the six weeks, we reviewed all of our weekly meetings and the every-other-day meetings we had started during the improvement plan, and he blamed us. It was HR’s fault for hiring him when he clearly couldn’t do the job, it was my fault for getting sick (because I eat meat and sugar and according to him both cause cancer!), it was my boss’s fault for taking two weeks off when his wife gave birth. He just kept piling on the excuses.

At the end of the meeting, we ended up letting him go.

It’s the first time I’ve ever had to let anybody go. And honestly I think I’m more upset than he was! I feel like somehow I failed. I failed in interviewing him. I failed in not catching the fact that he wasn’t working, that he wasn’t pulling his weight in the department. I just feel like such a failure. How do I move on from this? I need to replace him, and all I keep thinking is I’m going to hire badly again.

Rationally I know that I didn’t do such a horrendous job. I hired six people for a new department, five of whom are still there. And yet that inkling in the back of my brain, I still feel like a failure. Is there an easy way to move on?

This is Bob’s fault, not yours. You bent over backwards to try to make things work with him! You gave him far more chances than you needed to.

Bob just sucked.

I don’t say that because he was bad at the job. Some people are bad at their jobs, and that doesn’t mean they suck. Bob sucks because he:
* Unilaterally decided he could significantly shorten his work hours without talking to anyone about it or clearing that first (not a normal assumption to make), moped and complained when he was told he couldn’t, and then started doing it again anyway as soon as you weren’t physically present to see it.
* Disappeared throughout the day and wouldn’t respond to emails, texts, or instant messages, while you were dealing with chemo
* Tried to blame his not doing his work on you not being there while you were having chemo
* Claimed to be an entry-level employee despite having 15 years of experience (and presumably having accepted a non-entry-level job)
* Claimed not to have the experience that was on his resume and that was discussed in his interview
* Badmouthed you (you! who had tried so hard to accommodate him) and others
* Blamed you for getting sick
* Blamed you for getting sick (that one has to be on there twice)

I’m hard pressed to think of how the case for firing Bob could be more clear-cut.

If you did anything wrong here, it’s that you were too accommodating with Bob, at the expense of others on your team and the organization itself.

You can’t be more invested in saving someone’s job than they are! And Bob wasn’t even trying to save his job. He had every opportunity to turn things around and didn’t. You were the one working hard to save this. He wasn’t.

Bob behaved like a jerk — to you, to your boss, to his coworkers. You had an obligation to them and to your organization to say no more.

Your obligation as a manager is not to make every person you hire work out at all costs. Hiring isn’t a perfect science; you will make mistakes. Some of them will be harder than Bob was — a person who is genuinely trying and still can’t cut it is more painful to let go than someone like Bob is, and it’s still something you will have to deal with as a manager at some point. It’s part of the job, and it will happen because we are humans hiring humans and you can’t predict with perfect accuracy how someone will mesh with a job, no matter how hard you both try. Sometimes hiring decisions are wrong.

Your obligations as a manager are to be as thorough and rigorous in hiring as you can be, to set clear and reasonable goals and expectations for people, to give clear and timely feedback, to address problems forthrightly when they crop up, and to give people reasonable chances to resolve those problems. It is not your obligation to make things work no matter what the cost, or when it’s clear someone is the wrong fit for the job. It is not your obligation to work harder than they are to make a situation work. To the contrary, your responsibilities to the rest of your team mean that you are obligated to recognize when something isn’t working out and be willing to move people out (kindly and fairly) when that’s the case.

That doesn’t mean firings should ever be easy. They’re not. Taking away someone’s income source is a big deal. That’s why you give clear feedback and warnings, and why you spell it out when someone’s job in jeopardy and give them time and support to fix the issues.

You did your part, but Bob didn’t do his.

You’re being very hard on yourself, so it’s worth asking: Would you be this hard on one of your staff members if they made a hiring mistake? I doubt you would — you sound like you’re quite generous with others. Extend that generosity to yourself too!

As for failing because you didn’t catch that Bob wasn’t pulling his weight: You were dealing with cancer and chemo. You expected Bob to behave like a responsible adult. Would it have been better if you’d checked in more often? Maybe. Are you to blame for Bob’s shirking his work because you didn’t check in enough while you were in crisis? No. Bob is.

When something goes wrong like this, it is useful to think about what lessons you can take from it. Looking back on Bob’s hiring process, were there warning signs at the time? Areas you didn’t probe into? References you didn’t check? If so, good — now you can incorporate those lessons for the future. And are there lessons from the rest of it — things you can decide you’d do differently next time? Maybe there are places where you should have moved faster. Maybe it would have gone differently if you’d deputized someone to act on the Bob issues in your absence. I don’t know all the details, but I’m sure there are lessons in there — drawing them out and carrying them forward is how you move on.

But please don’t let Bob mess with your mind like this. He tried to gaslight you while he was there; don’t let him keep doing it now that he’s gone.

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