Should I fire the guy everyone outside the office loves.
April 18, 2010 5:50 PM   Subscribe

What if your superstar is not a star at all?

I'm the Executive Director of a small non-profit with 6 other staff working under me. On the staff is a young man who is seen as a 'rising star' and a 'person going places'. These are direct quotes. He has been with the organization longer than I have by about 2 years, but it is only his second job placement. He is seen as someone to watch by both funders and peers.

But they don't have to work with him. He is charming and personable, and in social or even work occasions outside the office he comes across wonderfully. Within the office, he is arrogant and difficult. He is constantly challenging other staff on the work they are doing, and seems to feel like everything that happens in the office requires his opinion. Other staff dread planning meetings, and are hesitant to take on projects that he has had anything to do with in the past. He insists that his way of doing things are the best, and gets very defensive, and then aggressive when anyone suggests improving anything that started before they began working at the organization.

There seem to be a number of factors coming into play - while he is the youngest and one of the most inexperienced in the office, he has been there the longest. His ego is also being continuously stroked by those that love his work. And I agree that when he is on task and focussed, he is brilliant. But when he is not, not only is he awful, he destroys the productivity of everyone else.

He's open to conversations about those things that are a problem, and seems to try, briefly, to fix them. I find I repeat the same conversations about every 3 months (I've been there for 9), and apparently the ED before did the same. I feel that I have let this go on too long, and that the others in the office are really beginning to feel the effects of constantly being on edge that his behaviour may turn at any time.

My solution: to pull him back to 3 days per week (giving him ample warning) and restrict his activities to those that are central to his job description, stripping him of any power to impact other decisions made in the office (a sort of probation). I am aware that this will probably compell him to look elsewhere for work - frankly, taking my ED hat off, he needs to try a new work environment anyway.

My questions:
1. Is this a fair solution? - I feel that we have discussed the issues often but this is the first time anyone has come out and said that he needs to shape up or face consequences.

2. Is there a way to mitigate damage if this 'rising star' starts badmouthing us to others in the community? I don't want to badmouth him under any circumstances but my relationships with some of these people need to be strong. Will people take sides if I don't force them to?

Bonus question - I have very little money to fund his position beyond the summer, and am disinclined to put a lot of resources into securing more at the moment - there are other positions I would rather save. Is blaming it on 'tough times' a cop out?

Anonymous because I suspect he's on here somewhere.

Throwaway email:
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (20 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Just give him his layoff notice when the funding runs out (IMHO that I've worked for non-profits before, and funding my position has always been *my* problem, not the ED's problem). He sounds like a jerk, and if he's as great as everything thinks he is, he'll land on his feet no problem.
posted by KokuRyu at 5:53 PM on April 18, 2010

No, it's not a cop out. This is how the world of work works
posted by KokuRyu at 5:54 PM on April 18, 2010

Document your warnings.

Does he meet his job requirements?
Does he disrupt co-workers?

Maybe you should let him go. And if you do, make it clear why, that way he has the opportunity to improve for his next job and is less likely to sue.
posted by CarlRossi at 5:55 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Don't do this, you will injure his pride and increase his defensiveness, while still allowing him to be around often enough to fuck things up.

It seems like you want to take him down a peg as visibly and irritatingly as you can in order to get him to leave, but there are better ways.

Why not just spin him off into his own division/area of responsibility, making him work as solo as possible? If he fails, it will be obvious that it is his fault. Think along the lines of development, something where he has to be out of the office a lot schmoozing people. That's what he's good at, right?
posted by internet fraud detective squad, station number 9 at 5:57 PM on April 18, 2010 [3 favorites]

Just cut him. Why leave him around half the time, to continue wreaking havoc? If he's already been warned, keeping him half-time will just make him more angry and destructive.
posted by runningwithscissors at 5:58 PM on April 18, 2010

If you have someone that destructive in a small non-profit, you have a problem. Cut your losses and let him go now. You'll be paying the unemployment cost no matter when you do it.
posted by HuronBob at 6:06 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

Nthing the idea to either let him go or not. Taking away power won't take away his problem behaviors.
posted by theichibun at 6:13 PM on April 18, 2010

He is seen as someone to watch by both funders and peers.

Hmm.. if you can't fund his position beyond the summer, can you maybe wait until then, let him go, and blame it on tough times? alternately, spinning him off into his own division that won't impact others, if that's possible. I used to see this happen in academic environments where people got sort of.. cross-promoted to special projects eg, where they won't have to manage people. Seems like it would be a good idea to not give him an overt reason to feel put-upon and defensive and angry at you/your organization, since word gets around.
posted by citron at 6:14 PM on April 18, 2010

Everyone meets people like this, including me. The guy had the brain of a thunderbolt. Nothing he couldn't master. But more than once, I referred to him as a cancerous blight on the company. I literally saw multiple ideas die on the launch pad when people realized they'd have to talk to him to take something further. It just wasn't worth the effort.

The good news is, people like this generally grow out of it.

Find out what really motivates him. Money? Promotions? His own office with a window? Set him up on projects with fixed end states that will reward him with exactly what he wants.

Then set the bar higher. You need 10 widgets? Tell him you need 20 in half the time. Tell him to take it as a personal challenge. Tell him he will succeed only if he manages to work well with others (bonus if you can set up the project to require this).

Then monitor the hell out of it, every step of the way. If he succeeds, reward him and set he bar even higher. If he fails, you will have monitored it closely enough to provide crystal-clear feedback. "You know, Dave, you would've gotten the big reward if you had managed to motivate the team to help you. How do you think you'd do it differently next time?"
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 6:18 PM on April 18, 2010 [5 favorites]

I've been in a similar position recently - from the inside, you know that a particular employee just needs to be GONE. The value they are adding to the organization is far outweighed by the levels of internal angst they cause. But they are exceedingly popular with those who don't see the inner workings of the organization, whether they be member or clients or whatever, and you know there will be some sort of uproar.

My experience is that the sooner you get this person out of the organization, the better off the entire organization will be. Yes, there will be questions from people who thought he was just the bee's knees, and you do not want to badmouth him. You say "it was a good time for everyone to make a change." Because it is a good time for your organization and, likely, a good time for the problem employee as well - like someone said, it seems like he might need to experience a work environment where he doesn't get to skate by on his established reputation as the golden boy.

This clearly isn't just impacting you as manager; it's also detrimental to the productivity of everyone else in the place.

Cut him loose as soon as possible. You will be amazed what a difference it makes in the office. Even if there's a gossipy fall-out (which I had to deal with), if you have a plan for how you'll handle it, it will blow over eventually and you can get on with the mission of your non-profit with less drama.
posted by Lulu's Pink Converse at 6:32 PM on April 18, 2010

Document everything. Then let him go.
posted by tzikeh at 7:37 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

The one thing that is guaranteed to cause problems is the management "Take Back." Take something from him, lessen his compensation, while allowing him his usual access -- you'll be lucky if all you lose is toilet paper and light bulbs. Client lists and core software may be more like it.
posted by StickyCarpet at 7:52 PM on April 18, 2010 [1 favorite]

Document everything. Then confront him with it. Then remind him that you've already had repeated versions of this conversation. Then ask him what he thinks you should do about each specific documented instance (it's no use asking him how to deal with hand-wavey "attitude improvement" - you need to be perfectly specific and treat each documented difficulty as its own self-standing thing). Then negotiate binding commitments to specific behavioral improvements with clear definitions, incentives for compliance and penalties for breaches. Get these in writing, and both of you sign off on each of them. Then follow through.

Do not negotiate on who is to judge whether or not a breach has occurred. You're the manager; that's your call.
posted by flabdablet at 8:00 PM on April 18, 2010 [6 favorites]

Flabdablet is completely correct here. Address the concerns directly, with him, specifically. He might actually improve. And if not, then you'll get rid of him.
posted by davejay at 9:12 PM on April 18, 2010

My grandfather used to tell me that the moment an employee thought he was indispensable, that was the time to let him go. However, I would start with Flabdablet's suggestion of talking to him about it first.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 9:22 PM on April 18, 2010 [2 favorites]

IANAExpert, but sounds to me like your superstar might benefit from a mentor. Could one of those that think he's "going places" (or yourself) be convinced to sort of take him under their wing, and explain to him things like how to get along in an office environment, and that just because you have good ideas sometimes doesn't give you run of the place? Not sure this is specifically helpful, but you admit yourself that "when he is on task and focused, he is brilliant." If someone could "focus him" (?) it sounds like you'd all benefit. May not work in your particular office setting, but ... just thought I'd pipe in...
posted by segatakai at 10:27 PM on April 18, 2010

Having been there... no one is indispensable. No lone-wolf genius is worth keeping around if he's constantly disrupting the pack dynamics. Tzikeh has it: document everything, let him go, make it a clean break.
posted by slab_lizard at 10:43 PM on April 18, 2010

My first reaction was that you are trying to have someone who's talent is basically anything but being able to manage his own behaviour. Your role as Executive Director is to manage and mentor this guy. His is to do fantastic work in all areas and treat the rest of the staff as a professional should. You seem to be assuming that just telling him to do this equals him being able to do it. It may take a lot more to help him improve.

Once you've really done some serious mentoring and taken the time to improve his ability to be a part of the team, then you can decide if he's not cut out for it. I've seen way too many managers of teams leave it up to their staff to figure out how to work in ways that just don't come naturally to them. When they are up against the wall after being "talked to", they usually just try the only things they know how to do harder. It doesn't come across to me that you've taken the responsibility to really teach and mentor this guy, and that would be very typically of someone in your position.

Perhaps you can delegate more responsibility to him with conditions on what the outcomes need to be (team cohesion, great output, shared labour, etc.) and spend more of your time helping him become a focused team member who can step up. If you are able to delegate to him, it should free up time to mentor him better. Meet every day for 30 minutes to discuss the day's plan of action, how he's going to interact, how he's going to accomplish the real goals, i.e. not just getting work done, but getting it done as a team the builds up everyone's involvement.

This can be incredibly difficult for a manager to do if they don't have the experience or inclination, but I think it's what your team, and definitely what this individual, need to make it work.
posted by qwip at 12:48 AM on April 19, 2010 [1 favorite]

Definitely take a look at Bob Sutton's book, The no asshole rule.
posted by Berkun at 1:01 AM on April 19, 2010

Fire him, absolutely. Don't weaken him and leave him there - that just foments resentment.

Note, though, that if he has his supporters, there will be a little bit of office politics involved. Make sure you document things and where necessary explain diplomatically to coworkers the harm that was resulting, not from his personality (don't get personal) but from his actions - this assures that you are not seen as a capricious or jealous firer of people.
posted by kid A at 4:38 AM on April 19, 2010

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