First time letting an employee go and things are going off the rails...
March 16, 2017 8:31 AM   Subscribe

I co-direct a small company that supports social service organizations-- generally through deploying our employees as consultants. We do not have an HR department. For budgetary and performance reasons we recently had to inform an employee that his contract will not be renewed. That said, he will continue to provide services to a client organization where he has been all year through the end of his contract several months from now. Since the meeting where this was shared things have gone off the rails very quickly. We have a follow up meeting coming next week. This is my first time handling something like this. I think I need MetaFilter wisdom...

I have follow up meeting next week with this employee. (Let's call him Bob) where I need to figure out 1. If it is wise to keep Bob on as an employee for the remainder of the year 2. If it is possible to re-norm and improve communication for the remainder of our time working together 3. How to set clear expectations for how the relationship with our organization and with the partner he is consulting with should run.

How should I proceed? What should I be aiming for? Trying to avoid? I want to be fair to Bob, fair to the client we are serving, and to handle this with professionalism. I'm feeling massively nervous.

Salient details (apologies as they are numerous):

- There have been significant performance issues, all shared with Bob, that center around judgement and social skills. Several clients have declined to work further with Bob.

- In the meeting with Bob where we told him he would not be rehired, we focused, truthfully, on budgetary reasons for non-renewal. The primary client Bob consults with through us cannot provide a guarantee of funds for next year. Because other clients have declined to work with Bob, we cannot find a way to keep him on while being fiscally responsible.

- In the initial meeting, Bob was distraught and angry, but expressed some level of understanding for our position. He informed us that he planned to ask our current client where he consults if they wanted to keep him on as an independent contractor next year as he could offer services at a lower cost. I told him that while legally that was well within his rights, it was obviously not our preference.

- Bob left the meeting and immediately contacted the client and offered his services, something the client informed me of in our follow up phone call where he expressed distress at being caught in the middle of a personnel situation not of his making. Bob remains our employee contracted out to this partner for at least the next several months as things currently stand.

- Since that meeting Bob has been largely radio silent. Not responding to e-mails etc. or when he does respond it is one word to one sentence with no greeting or sign off. However, when I told him that I had spoken with the client regarding next year, he responded with an aggressive message telling me that my behavior was "terrible." etc.

- I sent a follow up e-mail after this exchange clarifying my expectation of professionalism on both sides and setting up a meeting this coming week to try to re-norm and get on the same page with plans and expectations.

- Bob has tremendous content knowledge and up until this week, I would have been happy to give him a positive reference. This was part of the reason we focused on the budgetary rather than performance reasons for the non-renewal of contract.

- It would leave our client in a very bad situation if we terminate Bob before the end of his contract. But I am also very worried about the ramifications of keeping him on under these circumstances.

Thank you again in advance for all thoughts and ideas on how to proceed. Thank goodness for MetaFilter.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (20 answers total)

This post was deleted for the following reason: poster's request -- cortex

 
Other than the bad interaction about hiring him as an independent contractor, does the client have any other issues with working with Bob? If not, I'd say let him be petulant towards you, so long as he's getting his work done. If it would unfairly impact the client, it may be worth it to just keep Bob working through his contract and work to replace him when he's gone.
posted by xingcat at 8:41 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


I am not an HR professional, but, in my opinion, if you can get rid of him now, do so.

He has the potential of doing a lot of damage for the next several months, both to you and your client.

In addition, I would also document EVERYTHING that has happened and will happen while he is in your employ, as this could turn into a litigation situation.

Good luck.
posted by Hanuman1960 at 8:44 AM on March 16 [11 favorites]


You (or the most seniorest person you can find in your company) need to sit down with the client (and not with Bob) and ask what they want to do. Don't tell them about how shitty Bob is being with you, but say "Look, we're not going to be able to keep Bob on after [DATE]. We want to ask you about how we can best support you during this transition." Have some ideas ready (e.g., "Fire Bob immediately", "Assign another consultant to work under Bob and be ready to take over", "Assign another consultant to replace Bob but still have access to Bob"...), but follow their lead.

You may have to fire Bob immediately, or you may have to suck it up and be nicer to him and watch him "steal" this client over the next few months. But if it's what the client wants, then that's going to happen regardless, and you need to prepare yourself for all eventualities.
posted by Etrigan at 8:45 AM on March 16 [23 favorites]


Everything you could have done to mitigate this situation should have been done before you ever spoke to Bob.

I don't think this is salvageable anymore. You need to talk to the client and figure out how to help them going forward after Bob is gone, and then do whatever with Bob. You may lose the client too, but that is the relationship you should care about rather than the one with Bob.

In the future, don't...do this. You can't tell someone with known behavioral issues in March that you're letting them go in December.
posted by Lyn Never at 8:52 AM on March 16 [81 favorites]


- In the initial meeting, Bob was distraught and angry, but expressed some level of understanding for our position. He informed us that he planned to ask our current client where he consults if they wanted to keep him on as an independent contractor next year as he could offer services at a lower cost. I told him that while legally that was well within his rights, it was obviously not our preference.

- Bob left the meeting and immediately contacted the client and offered his services, something the client informed me of in our follow up phone call where he expressed distress at being caught in the middle of a personnel situation not of his making. Bob remains our employee contracted out to this partner for at least the next several months as things currently stand.


He is personally freaking out. which is totally understandable -- it's emotionally terrible to be fired/laid off no matter how it's framed. However, in the face of this he is showing TERRIBLE professional judgement.

Apologies if this is obvious, but I think you need to draw up (with a lawyer) a more negotiated exit for him on paper. You agree he's not being fired for cause, he agrees not to defame the company, etc etc etc., and include an offer of some career counseling in the agreement.
posted by desuetude at 8:54 AM on March 16 [4 favorites]


It is unfair to expect good performance from anyone who has been told they have no future with a project; it is unrealistic to expect that from the Bobs of the world. Your client is already experiencing a bad situation. Unless there are legal reasons you can't, then get Bob out of the picture as quickly and as fairly as possible.
posted by juliplease at 8:58 AM on March 16 [11 favorites]


I often feel really bad about the need to essentially keep it a secret from someone who's about to be let go, that they're about to be let go. But this is a textbook illustration of why that is.

You can put someone on a Performance Improvement Plan if you think there's some hope, because that slender thread of hope is what keeps them on the up and up. Even then, it hardly ever works. That's the reality of it.

You may need some legal advice at this point, but the end result is that Bob is going to have to go, and go right now. He is damaging your client relationships beyond repair.
posted by randomkeystrike at 9:25 AM on March 16 [3 favorites]


Because other clients have declined to work with Bob, we cannot find a way to keep him on while being fiscally responsible.

If you are his manager, I think you messed up here. If not, same goes for whoever it is who is supposed to be managing.

You didn't do Bob any favors by telling him you were letting him go for budgetary reasons. Anyone who gets fired because people won't work with him is a budgetary drain, but the budget's not the actual issue. Bob should have been managed (as in, a manager should have talked with him) at the first sign of problems (and it sounds like you maybe did that part but probably not as clearly as you could have), put on a PIP or the like at the second or third that demonstrates his job is at stake, and let go at the end of the PIP or the like if insufficient improvements were shown. I understand that these are harder conversations to have, but it is a responsibility of the job of managers, and by failing to let Bob know each step of the way that there are performance issues that risk his job you have set him up to do poorly not only the rest of the time at your company (!!) but also in his future roles.

Giving him several months of advanced notice when you know he's already performing poorly and haven't fully addressed that nor have a backup removal plan was not well thought out, either - if you have someone who doesn't do their job well when they are at baseline and is now made stressed and upset, particularly for the wrong reasons (thinks they are performing well enough and that your company can't pay them anymore through insufficient development but is hindering their attempts to find secure work elsewhere), this current situation is what you get.

At this point, I think you're right that you need to sit down with Bob and let him know that his performance is suffering since the notice you gave him about his longevity at your company (he's ghosting/abrupt/aggressive with you, he's making clients uncomfortable*) and that you either need him to immediately turn it around (as evidenced by X, Y, Z) or you'll need to transition him out much more quickly than planned - one week, a month, whatever you think is reasonable for the company and the client.

*Really, you both did that, though.
posted by vegartanipla at 9:32 AM on March 16 [12 favorites]


I'm very puzzled as to why you told Bob you were getting rid of him this far in advance, when your client actually does need him to continue to do the work? If I were your client I would expect you to provide a replacement consultant ASAP, and get Bob out of my hair right away.

(I used to place temps at client offices, and unfortunately we could never ever give anyone notice, for this reason. It sucked, and I was always embarrassed when I had to fire someone by calling them at home and telling them not to go back, it but was really the only way to handle it. No client wants to get an angry or checked-out consultant; it's a great way to lose their business forever.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 9:33 AM on March 16 [6 favorites]


Good Lord. Out the door, the instant you can take prophylactic measures. Change all passwords, remove all access, remove all site passes, etc. And don't ever tell someone in March that you won't be renewing in December. Four weeks is generous, with the understanding that whenever you fire someone, you may need to exercise your option for them to not see out the notice period. As you do right now.
posted by DarlingBri at 9:51 AM on March 16 [5 favorites]


"However, when I told him that I had spoken with the client regarding next year, he responded with an aggressive message telling me that my behavior was "terrible." etc."

No meetings, no PIP bullshit. Fire this person immediately. Change passwords, locks, advise your client to do the same. You went out on a limb doing the decent thing by providing an early heads up, and he fucked you.

The damage to your relationship with your client by failing to fulfill a consulting contract, will be nothing compared to what can be wreaked by a rogue employee. Think 'lawsuits' and 'police', not 'lost contracts'.
posted by The Prawn Reproach at 10:03 AM on March 16 [8 favorites]


If $client doesn't have $$$ to remain your client next year, then you were going to lose them anyway. Can they still work with Bob if he's an independent contractor to them?

Bob is currently in a position to do massive damage to you and your company. This may be expensive. You need a lawyer.
posted by scruss at 10:20 AM on March 16


I think I'm confused why, if the client wouldn't have the money to remain your client next year, it would have been a problem for him to work for that client next year for cheaper?
posted by corb at 10:23 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


Since the meeting where this was shared

"Shared?" You fired him several months in advance. That's not sharing, it's firing.

The way it reads to me, you threw him into a torture chamber with zero notice. "Hi Bob, nobody likes you and you're going to be laid off in 8 months (because of money, honest). I hope this won't affect your performance."

There have been significant performance issues, all shared with Bob

There's that word again. Was this at the same meeting you fired him, or was in the past, in the interests of improving his performance? That is, was the firing meeting when he found out that everybody hates him and also he smells bad? I smell a failure of management here, and it's splashing onto your clients and consequently the organization's reputation. If you reread your question, there's a lot of diffusion of responsiblity (and vague "we" wording) on the part of your organization, while Bob enjoys a detailed analysis of his role and personality. I imagine the meeting proceeded similarly.

I would also take a hard look at whether you take your clients for granted or treat them as a captive audience with nowhere else to go for help, which allows you to be cavalier in times like these. "Ugh, Bob...can we just get rid of him already? We can probably find someone to fill in for [acknowledged domain expert]."

And you know the money angle is bullshit when the money comes from clients working with him, and as someone with experience Bob probably knows that. Frankly, you're demanding continued professionalism from him without demonstrating it yourself. He's a person who cares enough to have experience and expertise.
posted by rhizome at 10:45 AM on March 16 [8 favorites]


I agree with discussing this issue with the client. Given the pickle you're in, I might consult with an attorney first. If Bob screws the client in order to screw you, you're ultimately responsible.

If it's me, one way or another, Bob probably has to go now. One thing to explore with your attorney and then your client is giving them a choice of ending their contract immediately and hiring Bob, since that may happen in a few months anyway, or of them working with someone else you hire for the remainder of the contract. If they agree to work with someone else, you eat some billable hours for getting a new hire up to speed.
posted by cnc at 10:47 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


I agree that he needs to be gone, immediately. As others noted, the critical mistakes were avoiding a PIP approach when trouble first surfaced and letting him know months too early. Here's some more to do items:

  • Find your contract with Bob, read it (especially with regard to termination and performance clauses and et partite client relationships), and share it with an attorney. That attorney should attend the meeting.

  • Same thing re your contract with the client.

  • If you're a non-profit, you also need to apprise the appropriate Board of Directors subcommittee (Executive or Personnel, most likely).

  • The social services provider world is small. Strategize how the rumor mill works, what the likely collateral damage will be, and get out in front of it especially vis-a-vis your other clients.

  • If you don't already have a formal performance review program where you and the clients discuss how the consultants are doing, start one. Ask the clients you're particularly worried about to contribute ideas and serve as test cases.

  • Figure out what needs to be said to the other consultants. If they perceive that Bob is being rewarded for bad behavior by getting to eliminate the middle man, you, in a client relationship that's not good. Nip that shit right in the bud.

  • Later, after the dust settles, review your contracts with all of the other consultants and clients and put in place a plan to update them as appropriate.

  • posted by carmicha at 10:48 AM on March 16 [3 favorites]


    Bob needs to go, and the client can potentially be presented with a choice of whether to keep contracting with you guys with a different consultant, or to hire Bob on as a consultant now. Keeping him on staff after this debacle is just not going to work.
    posted by showbiz_liz at 11:57 AM on March 16 [1 favorite]


    Realistically, Bob needs to go now, no exceptions. He has already downgraded his relationship with you from one of "employer-employee" to one of "peer-peer." A rudimentary knowledge of human psychology should have told you was coming a mile away when you "told him his contract would not be renewed" (I, fired him). He has decided to cease caring, show up to collect his paycheck, do the bare minimum, and look for other work while on the job. This was 1000% predictable.

    Any attempts to asset yourself in a position of authority or reclaim "boss employer" status will backfire spectacularly at this moment in time and I highly suggest you do not attempt them.

    Speak to Bob in a much less formal tone. Drop the business-speaky "re-norming" and the "meetings" and the "expectations." Use your person-voice, pull him aside, and tell him in a low tone "Look Bob, I am going to give it to you straight. Here is how this can go. I understand your decision. You can either put in the work for the next month and get a good reference, or you can go now. It's your choice. I know you're in a hard place. There won't be any hard feelings from me, but if you want to stay for a bit you're going to force our hand if you don't finish the job."

    This allows Bob to save face and presents him with the illusion of choice, when really, he will likely choose to leave asap or as soon as he lines up other work anyway.
    posted by stockpuppet at 1:47 PM on March 16 [3 favorites]


    Going to take a different take on this than others. Is the issue that Bob contacted the client and tried to set up a contract for after he is done working through you? Why is this a problem? You and he talked about him doing this, then he did it. You should have just told the client that they are welcome to do as they see fit, but if they don't have money for you they could simply argue to him that they don't have money for him either.

    In the meeting, what should you do? Go over again that he is not being fired for cause, he is being let go for budgetary reasons (which officially is true, right?). Tell him you want to help him find another job and work with future clients. Ask how you can assist - i.e. letters of reference etc. Tell him you know it is stressful, but he needs to keep it cool for the next few months and be a pro.
    posted by Toddles at 8:28 PM on March 16 [1 favorite]


    I hate to say this because it will stress you out more but I would suggest you consult a lawyer, or at least an HR consultant with a lot of experience here. Elements of your story would be a firing under "pretext" in my state, which IIUC is instant wrongful termination if sued. But he's on contract so maybe that's not an issue, and of course I don't know your state law.

    FWIW in my area telling someone on a fixed term contract you won't renew it well ahead of time seems completely standard and humane. Good luck.
    posted by mark k at 11:37 PM on March 16


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