The 'good employee/bad fit' conversation. A good or bad idea?
July 9, 2013 6:20 AM   Subscribe

I realize I may have to fire a member of my team after about 3 years. This is one of the first times that I truly think that this is a 'good employee/bad fit' situation, but I'm wavering between having and not having that part of the conversation. So here's the question: Would you want this to be a conversation you had with your boss? If so, what would you want to hear? What would you not want to hear? When would you want to hear it? Both actual experiences and never-happened-but-here's-what-I-think thoughts appreciated.

I have already had performance expectations/review conversations with this person. In my gut I think this is a fit issue, and I have a choice to include my perspective about this being a fit issue. So I'm wondering hivemind, if your supervisor ever had a 'good employee/bad fit' conversation with you, and whether you appreciated it or not. If you did have it, when did you have it? Was it after you made another mistake, or when you seemed burned out - and you felt unappreciated or piled on? Or was it a separate conversation - and you felt blindsided? Was it a few months before you actually were let go, or right before? Did that part of the conversation help you put things in perspective or did it make you more resentful? Did you want to try to convince them that you were a good fit, or did it help you start looking for a new job before you were fired? What did the specifically say that you felt was positive? Negative? From an HR standpoint, this part of a conversation seems greatly discouraged, and I still need to check with my HR about their policy. Legally perhaps this isn't a good idea, but from a 'decent thing to do' standpoint, it might be. Personally, I would want to know that my supervisor thought I was a bad fit but a good employee, and my boss (who also thinks this is a good employee/bad fit situation) has encouraged me to consider including it in my conversation with my staff person. But that's just me. I have a friend who is more just a 'rip off the bandaid' person, which in her case means - fire me if you're going to fire me, but just say you're fired and be done with it.

That's probably enough for those of you who want the short version. Thanks for your answers.

............And if you want to read the long version about why I think it is a 'fit' question:

This person, who I hired, tries and works exceptionally hard, is good at several aspects of the job, is loyal, and has a strong work ethic. They aren't always appreciated by others for the work that they do, though I make it a point to do so. Additionally, this is a new role in my organization, and at times my staff person has clarify their role, which can be challenging.

But, the issue isn't about the employee's skill set, but their judgment. Specifically, though we have set out expectations (I expect you do to X), somehow they don't do it. When we discuss the situation afterwards, there is often a reason as to why they didn't do X. When I ask if they understood that I wanted them to do X, their response is, "yes, but...."

For example:
This person supports several other team members on several projects, and has to manage their time well. I will explain that if they are given a task, but can't fulfill it, they have to give it back to the program manager who assigned it to them. Once, when I asked me for help in completing a task, I asked why they didn't ask the project manager and they said, "I was going to, but they are already overwhelmed on another project."

Another time it was my supervisor who asked my staff person for help, but clearly did not give enough information for my staff person to move forward with the task. When I asked them why they didn't just ask my supervisor for the appropriate information, their answer was, "I was going to, but the guy was on vacation, we were speaking on the phone, and it felt awkward, because I was speaking to our supervisor."

In conversations it seems to be a combo of them of really, really enjoying being in a problem solving role and really wanting to appearing competent, which means they sometimes take on problems they can't solve.

We recently discussed this again after a different incident, and I told them that this was a performance issue, and it had to be resolved. My staff person agreed that they should have done things differently, and we decided to work on it for two months.

So, to bring us to the present: most recently, my staff person made a medium level mistake with an important client, and I asked them via email to wait for my supervisor before responding. I'm now looking at an email from them explaining that they went ahead and responded, because they were concerned about maintaining the relationship with the client. While I admit that the client relationship is important, I realized that it was not as important as maintaining a relationship with our supervisor, who would want to be a part of resolving this situation with this particular client. I also think they were horrified that they made the mistake and wanted to try to fix it without getting myself or my supervisor involved. But really, they couldn't.

I call this a 'fit' issue, because I realize from conversations that this person isn't (consciously) trying to be insubordinate, even though they basically have repeatedly not done what I said. It's that when they look at a situation/problem, their values and concerns lead them to frame the situation and develop solutions that are different from my/the organization's values.

Also, there are times when they want to 'show initiative' but are reading the possibility of whether or not this is a situation where 'showing initiative' is more important than 'following the guidelines I set out for you'. And so they bite off more than they can chew, and either get burnt out, or criticized when they can't deliver. My organization is a bit cut throat, rather than collaborative, to when people see a resource (like my staff person) they will use it (and so my staff person's hard work ethic and fear of being identified as in competent by others if they ask questions or say no - their greatest gift/greatest fear - is sort of being turned against them, as they take on more and more work). It's also making my job harder because I have to untangle the mess when this person becomes overwhelmed.

Finally, why has this been going on for three years? We have discussed this situation for three years, repeatedly. In the first year, my staff person said that the issue was that they were just learning their role. In the second, our office went though some pretty dramatic organizational/staffing changes, which made it hard to meet my expectations. But here we are at year three, and it's performance evaluation time again, and I realize that this behavior has improved, but at best it's still a C-. In previous years I could focus on all that they did accomplish, and only lightly suggest improvement on this point in their performance evaluation, but this year, I realize it isn't just about learning the role/the role being complicated, but about this person's people pleasing/striving for perfection ways. I also understand that they don't understand why their behavior around these issues is being so heavily weighted (to the point that they could get fired), in light of all the other things they have achieved.

That's it. Thanks all.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (27 answers total) 9 users marked this as a favorite
You need to talk to HR about what you need to do to terminate this person.

This is NOT a bad fit issue, this is an employee who has been warned, verbally and in writing and who continues to not improve or to take on-board what he/she has been told.

There is NO need to elaborate on this when you terminate this person. After three years, you've not been able to change the behavior although you have offered solid and specific methods for doing so.

You are not a therapist, nothing you've said so far has helped, nothing you say in the future will help.

If you talk too much, you may open yourself and the company to a lawsuit.

So say the bare minimum according to the HR policy.

It's more important to protect yourself than it is to help your employee at this point.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 6:28 AM on July 9, 2013 [17 favorites]

Agree with Ruthless Bunny.

The reason that this is still happening after three years is that except for verbal warnings and talks, the person has had no real incentive to change. It's not going to get better. They are going to continue to do this.
posted by Leezie at 6:31 AM on July 9, 2013

Ruthless Bunny's advice is fine....


At the end of the day, I think you have to look at yourself, as a manager, and try to understand how you can make this better if this comes up in the future. In my opinion, there is culpability on your part for this going on for 3 years.

Simply firing someone who you admit is a good employee is a waste of resources. Can you look into transferring them elsewhere?
posted by PsuDab93 at 6:36 AM on July 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

If someone who is being fired does not understand why they are being fired, then either their supervisor has failed at communication, or the employee will never understand why they are being fired. It does not sound like you have failed at communication in this case, so either they already know why they are being fired, or explaining it to them will not help.
posted by Rock Steady at 6:39 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

It really seems like you have taken a lot of care and thought around this issue and this person, and frankly it doesn't sound like they deserve it.

If you are their supervisor, their goal should be to please you, to do what you say, and get what you need done. If they are not doing that, they are not doing their job.

It sounds like you're at the end of your rope, but it would help to identify to them "if you directly disobey things I say again, your job will be in jeopardy." "I want to see you take on and COMPLETE x amount of projects in the next Y months. You have taken on and not completed Z amount of projects in the last Y months." Coat it in all the praise you want, but that seems to be what you're getting at. Maybe they don't get it. Maybe they don't understand exactly how much they are failing.
posted by ejfox at 6:43 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I don't get the title of "Good employee" part. This is a mediocre employee at best albeit one with good intentions. I would simply say that it is not working out and fire that employee.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 6:56 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

I think you're confusing "good employee" with "good person". You want to call it a "fit" issue so you don't have to admit that someone with good intentions still failed to perform well (which is what appears to have happened).

In any case, terminating an employee is FRAUGHT with legal implications and your HR department should dictate what you can and cannot say to the employee, not us.
posted by telegraph at 6:59 AM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

From an HR standpoint, this part of a conversation seems greatly discouraged, and I still need to check with my HR about their policy.

It's gently ironic that in your attempt to be kinder, you're considering doing exactly what your employee has been doing that you want to fire him for: making decisions, based on good intentions, that are contrary to the instructions you have been given and to the interest of the company.

HR is there to keep the company from being successfully sued. Just do what they say. If it makes you feel better, remember that you have told the employee, repeatedly, what the problem has been; and he's been unable to modify his behavior to satisfy the requirements.

(I actually do think this is a "fit" situation and that there are probably places where a lot of initiative and a great work ethic might make him quite successful. But I don't think you should go off script, regardless. It's just risky, and not your job.)
posted by fingersandtoes at 7:20 AM on July 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

Yeah, telegraph has the right of it. How old is this person? Your employee sounds fairly junior, like he hasn't had much experience in your industry before and doesn't have a good sense of how to manage time and interact professionally (which includes doing what your supervisor tells you to and saying you don't understand or need more information). He is NOT a good employee, no matter how much you might want him to be. Sad, but so you don't send him the wrong signals (ie "keep doing what you're doing") you should really clarify this for yourself before you talk to him.
posted by eralclare at 7:22 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

I think this is more a case of "bad employee I like a lot" than "good employee, bad fit."
posted by xingcat at 7:26 AM on July 9, 2013 [10 favorites]

telegraph: In any case, terminating an employee is FRAUGHT with legal implications and your HR department should dictate what you can and cannot say to the employee, not us.

Yes, absolutely. If I had to fire someone, I would ask to have someone from HR present at that meeting. This is fairly typical, in my experience.
posted by Rock Steady at 7:33 AM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

This is not a fit issue. This is a performance issue.

Others have said it, but the fact this has gone on for 3 years and becomes a laundry list of problems points to a management failure as much as a failure on the part of the employee.

If you want to manage them out because of performance, you need to speak to HR about how to do this - both from a legal standpoint and also from a performance management standpoint. It is bad practice to manage people - skilled people out - if better management of them or training would cure the issue.

This is why the process needs to be overt - the failing employee needs to know they're getting support and training and what it's aiming to do. They also need to know they are being actively performance managed. That is your job as manager to communicate and effect, in consultation with your HR team.

If more appropriate management or training can't cure the issue then ordinarily you should be able to show why that isn't the case. If you can show that, then you've tried, they've tried and it hasn't worked. They get managed out for performance.

If it eventually comes down to the difficult conversation, don't feel too bad about it, even though you like them. Fundamentally if they can't do the job they're in the wrong job and long term this will not make them happy or progress their career. Cutting them loose at least gives them a chance to find the right job.

The difficult bit is that ordinarily HR makes you work to a pretty tight script for legal reasons so you won't get to coach them towards the job you really think they could do well. So whatever you feel about them as a person the exit part tends to be a bit cold and impersonal.
posted by MuffinMan at 7:34 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

This employee does not fit in with your corporate culture, which is very hierarchical, and so will never thrive at your company. Fire the person per HR's instructions, but volunteer to be a reference and get the employee's personal email address. If you hear about an appropriate job opportunity, make introductions accordingly. The only time I ever fired someone for "goodness of fit" reasons I helped that employee land a new job. In an ideal world, you can too.
posted by carmicha at 7:43 AM on July 9, 2013 [7 favorites]

I agree with all above; fit is a generous interpretation. It's possible that a person like this who seems unable/unwilling to follow specific directions and use proscribed methods of communication will do well at a place with different culture, but little of what you describe seems to me to be things that a focused person couldn't manage.

This is a screw up, don't contact them directly, this person must be involved first.
I contacted them directly.

You're generous in understanding their reasons but in the end it doesn't matter.

I think if you want to do the best for this person in their future endeavors (provided your HR guidelines allow it) you don't say anything about fit. You say we had these issues with this behavior which we were not able to resolve and now you don't work here anymore. They can either take the lesson from that - actually do what your supervisors tell you - or they don't.

You've been trying to spoon feed this message for three years. Now let it be learned more directly and get yourself a better employee.
posted by phearlez at 7:55 AM on July 9, 2013

Ask a Manager has a post about firing that you might find useful.
posted by eralclare at 7:59 AM on July 9, 2013

Also, there are times when they want to 'show initiative' but are reading the possibility of whether or not this is a situation where 'showing initiative' is more important than 'following the guidelines I set out for you'.

I worked, for about two years, at an organization where, where I was constantly told that I needed to show more initiative, but every time I did actually use my judgement and initiative to make a decision, I was reprimanded for it. It was maddening, and demoralizing, and frustrating, and ultimately I just sort of gave up trying to take more than the most basic initiative in my job, because it was really clear to me that it was a no-win situation. Ultimately, I was fired, and it was very liberating, but it also took me more than a year to get back any self confidence and I now continue to be anxious when I make decisions without reviewing them with my supervisor, despite the fact that I'm completely empowered to make the decisions myself. I do it, and every time I do it and the hammer doesn't fall, I feel a bit better, but it will be a long road back to the self-confident person I used to be.

It sounds very much like you want to keep this person, for whatever reason. If so, I would challenge you to think about the messages you, as a manger, has been sending to this person. Obviously you want them to follow explicit instructions ("wait for the supervisor before responding") but what behavior have you actually been rewarding? Is the person getting mixed messages between what you say you want and what you actually reward? When this employee uses their judgement appropriately, how do you respond? Do you offer as much praise when they do get it right as you do correction when they get it wrong?

You are obviously getting a lot of advice here to just cut your losses and start over, but if you really want to keep this person, I think it's possible to coach them to succeed, but only if there are ways that you can make changes that reward desired behaviors instead of trying (by reprimands) to extinguish undesirable ones.
posted by anastasiav at 8:18 AM on July 9, 2013 [11 favorites]

Part of the problem here is you've let a bad behavior continue for 3 years. This is the way this goes:

1. Verbal warning (document date and subject in employee file)
2. Email or written warning (include in employee file)
3. Meeting to discuss performance issue (document date and subject in employee file)
4. Meeting to implement performance improvement plan (PIP) (document in employee file)
5. Meetings to monitor PIP (document)
6. Meeting to recognize successful completion of PIP or begin termination (document)

The deal here, is you didn't get past step one. Three years? This person should have been on PIP 2.5 years ago. Now the person does not take you seriously at all.

In fairness to your employee, no one should get a unsatisfactory performance review that's a surprise. If someone is doing a C- job, then they should have already had verbal warning, written warning and a meeting to fix behaviors. By not following an escalating path of warning/PIP you haven't put pressure on the person to change behaviors.

To fire the person without going through PIP is sort of unfair. Also, as part of the PIP you identify the support the person needs to do the job. It sounds as though your employee needs some assistance understanding and communicating the limits of his skills. You may need to rehearse that conversation with him. You may need to actively monitor their commitments to help them understand their limits.
posted by 26.2 at 8:26 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Apologies for the bluntness in this post, but I have to echo xingcat. This is not a good employee... this is a bad employee. In fact, this is the worst kind of employee.

Bad employees are consistently incompetent in their role. The worst kind of employees are consistently incompetent in their role, and they fail to heed clear instructions that will help them improve.

Your employee is clearly the latter.

Also, in this situation, you are part of the problem. You are too worried about this employee's feelings. You haven't set clear performance expectations by your own admission... the fact that your employee is floundering so badly but is totally unaware of the degree of their underperformance is a problem, and that's all on you.

While you worry about your employee's feelings, you aren't worried enough about your business... by allowing this person to flounder for so long, you've undoubtedly harmed your coworkers and supervisors, who have had to pick up the slack and handle issues the employee caused. You are causing their time and money to be wasted. If you fail to handle this decisively and change your management approach in the future, you're going to run into trouble as resentment continues to build... and it will be resentment against you and your poor management.

Rip off the band-aid and do what HR wants you to do!

And if I'm in the employee's shoes, I want to hear exactly why I'm being fired, and that's it. I don't want platitudes intended to "make me feel better." This is a business, not a friendship or a family... if I need to improve, I want to know exactly what I need to do to improve.

Again, apologies for the bluntness. I had to learn these kinds of lessons myself as a manager. Be more critical and demanding in the future... you may feel uncomfortable doing this at first, but it will save you time and money so long as you respect your employees and set clear expectations.
posted by Old Man McKay at 8:28 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is what I would want to hear, as an employee:

1) We are letting you go due to XYZ unsatisfactory performance (so the employee understands the issue & can hopefully improve it for the next job).
2) However, we are going to document this as a layoff, and if you file for unemployment we will not contest it.
3) You can use me as a reference, and I will be an excellent reference and state that you were laid off because the position was eliminated.

This is what I would want to hear as an employee, but I suspect that it may not be possible to say for legal reasons, so CHECK WITH HR BEFORE YOU SAY ANY OF THIS!
posted by insectosaurus at 8:32 AM on July 9, 2013 [4 favorites]

From a member that would prefer to remain anonymous:
I was actually on the receiving end of this at one point. I had been with that employer for almost two years, and though my last formal performance review was mostly positive, I had been hearing unofficial rumblings that I was in trouble for about six months before I was terminated. When the boss came into my office and asked me to join him and two other managers in the conference room, I was surprised that they were terminating me, but none of the reasons for their doing so were surprises.

The way they expressed it was precisely this "good employee/bad fit" situation. they may have just been trying to spare my feelings, but in talking with the people in the meeting and several other managers afterwards, I don't think so. They saw that I was capable of doing good work, and were very pleased with parts of my performance. Unfortunately, most of the work they had for me wasn't the stuff I was good at and/or enjoyed (I think there's necessarily a relationship between the two, but no matter) and I had issues with the majority of the work that they did have. It wasn't so much mistakes--there were a few of those, but, the bosses told me they weren't really the driving force behind the decision--as much as a distinct difference in the quality of the work I was turning out based on the kind of work it was. I was their go-to guy for certain issues, but they didn't have enough of those issues to keep me around.

When they did let me go, my superiors all indicated that they'd be happy to provide me with good references (which has happened). They just thought that I would do better at a company which did more of the work that I manifestly enjoyed and excelled at and less of the sort of work that they had. As such companies exist in my field, it really was a sort of "Look, we think you're going to be great at what you do, it's just that what you do isn't really what we do." I was definitely making money for the company too, so they did have some incentive to keep me around, but rather than string me along for another few years before firing me once it really became a problem, they decided to rip off the band-aid. Less hassle on their part, and probably better for me in the long run. Oh, and the fact that some developments in my personal life made it seem likely that I'd be moving out of state in the next year or two anyway didn't earn me any points either, I'm sure. They wanted someone they thought would be staying with them and doing their kind of work for the long term, and for a variety of reasons, they didn't think I was that person.

On the other hand, it sounds like this person made some more serious screw ups than I ever did. In particular, I never, ever directly disobeyed instructions from a superior. Actively doing something you've been instructed not to do or actively failing to do things you have explicitly been instructed to do are both far more serious problems than turning in work that doesn't quite meet expectations or that's later than the bosses would like but which doesn't blow any deadlines. I did both of the latter far more often than I'm proud of, but I never, under any circumstances did either of the former. That's just huge.

So while I do think that the "good employee/bad fit" situation exists, it doesn't sound to me like this is one of those times. This person has some serious issues with professionalism. But regardless of how you decide that question, it sounds like this employee has had more than ample time to improve their performance but continues to both fail to meet expectations there and to actively make bad judgment calls. Having this person around seems like more trouble than it's worth. Let 'em go. Consult with HR and/or legal counsel about how to do that properly, but pull the trigger sooner rather than later.
posted by mathowie at 8:42 AM on July 9, 2013 [2 favorites]

While you worry about your employee's feelings, you aren't worried enough about your business... by allowing this person to flounder for so long, you've undoubtedly harmed your coworkers and supervisors, who have had to pick up the slack and handle issues the employee caused. You are causing their time and money to be wasted. If you fail to handle this decisively and change your management approach in the future, you're going to run into trouble as resentment continues to build... and it will be resentment against you and your poor management.

This is exactly what I wanted to say. If your employee won't listen to your directions, what do you think is happening when their peers or direct reports are telling them things? You say other people don't appreciate them - it may be that other people are appreciating parts of their behavior you are unwilling to see.
posted by winna at 9:38 AM on July 9, 2013

anonymous posted">> My organization is a bit cut throat, rather than collaborative, to when people see a resource (like my staff person) they will use it (and so my staff person's hard work ethic and fear of being identified as in competent by others if they ask questions or say no - their greatest gift/greatest fear - is sort of being turned against them, as they take on more and more work). It's also making my job harder because I have to untangle the mess when this person becomes overwhelmed.

From your examples, the employee has the right interests at heart -- seeing a project through, not contradicting the big boss, protecting the client relationship -- but is not correctly choosing when to be proactive versus when to defer to authority.

But if the organization is cut throat and people will do what they can to get ahead, and his/her position is new and and he/she had to clarify his/her role to coworkers...yet you expect him/her to stay on a very, very short leash and not trust their own judgement on anything...well, that's an uncomfortable place to be.

I see your problem -- until he/she "gets it," you can't trust them with more autonomy, but I think it's worth taking a hard look at this as a management issue as well as a performance issue. After three years with organizational changes to boot, I don't think you can lay the blame entirely at his/her feet. It's part of your job to help untangle/prevent the mess when this person gets overwhelmed.
posted by desuetude at 9:54 AM on July 9, 2013 [5 favorites]

Look, if you told them not to do something and they did it anyway, that is not a good employee. That is an insubordinate employee. Sorry, the road to hell is paved with good intentions and all that.

Check with your H. R., and let them go.
posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 1:08 PM on July 9, 2013

I was in your position earlier this year, in fact I wrote a long AskMe about strategies I could use to help that employee manage her time better. Unfortunately none of them worked and we eventually had to let her go. I feel very strongly that the employee in question has great strengths in her core functions, but she was utterly failing in a tedious but necessary area.

We told her we were letting her go but then ended up allowing her to resign, so her notice period ended up being about 2 months (she did different work during that time that would not have been viable as a long-term job). She left on very good terms and may actually end up taking a job in another part of our large parent organization that will play more to her strengths, and I think a lot of that was due to my (and others') assurances that we recognized her good qualities and the specific circumstances that led to her failure (while not excusing the failure or allowing her to keep working.) I told her outright that I would be happy to act as a reference for her and will keep that promise if asked.

So yes, I think it's important to recognize peoples' strong qualities especially when you are doing something like firing them, you just have to be very clear that those strengths don't make up for whatever core job function they are lacking. From your post, though, I'm not sure you've done that, at least not to the point where your employee recognizes that his/her job is at risk. I think in all fairness you really need to make that clear. I will say that the long notice period alarmed our HR person, who was worried that either she would be disruptive or she would shape up in the meantime and we would want to keep her (neither of those things happened).

I sort of get the feeling that maybe your employee doesn't feel empowered to say no. He/she is supporting multiple people, all of whom are trying to monopolize his/her time. It seems like the primary issue (botched attempt at taking responsibility for a mistake aside) is actually his/her inability to prioritize and get everything done. But it also doesn't seem like there's a good avenue for him/her to push back on projects other than simply handing back the most recent thing he/she is given. Are you in the role of helping them prioritize their work and time and balance all those "cutthroat" demands? If that's their role, are they in a position where they can say no?

I think you owe it to this employee to make it clear that he/she is not performing adequately at a core function of the job and create an actionable plan that he/she can work on, as well as assurances that you will back them up in turning away work if they need to. They've been in their job for 3 years, a few more months of really trying to fix things is unlikely to ruin the organization and you might end up with a functional employee.
posted by The Elusive Architeuthis at 1:13 PM on July 9, 2013 [3 favorites]

I would start a genuine performance improvement process. The employee sounds like they're afraid to ask for clarification from a higher level manager or a busy team member. Give measurable goals, and meet with the employee at least monthly to gauge progress. Be clear that the employee's future depends on improving the performance. That gives the employee the chance to get it right, and gives you and HR appropriate grounds for termination if it doesn't work out.
posted by theora55 at 1:20 PM on July 9, 2013

Speaking as someone who was once let go due to a "bad fit," and also as someone who has had to let people go, I agree that you owe it to the employee to start a PIP, but the employee also owes it to you to work that PIP and demonstrate their commitment to the job. It's not clear what's going on with this person. Are they being passive-aggressive? Do they think they know better than the boss? Do they have a condition like ADHD that makes it hard to prioritize things and can lead to impulsive behavior? Has their performance problem been so soft-pedaled that they simply don't have a clue how much their job is jeopardized? Are they in their first job and unaware of what constitutes professional behavior?

A PIP with the expectations made crystal clear will benefit both you and the employee. The person should be clearly warned that failure to improve in very specific ways will result in them being let go.

I would not go into more detail with them than what is stated in the PIP, nor get too personal with the employee, lest they are the sort of person to play on your sympathies. Also, this could backfire with legal consequences.

All that is really needed if you fire this person is cordiality. An offer to write them a good recommendation and/or enable them to collect unemployment is an excellent way to mutually part ways in a case like this (if HR and state laws permit). When I was the "bad fit" employee, I received several months' severance pay, a recommendation, and unemployment compensation. (Granted, I was not insubordinate in any way; it might have gone down differently had I disobeyed my boss). You absolutely must involve HR in this entire process, from the PIP onward.

In the situation where I wasn't working out at the job, it was a family business and expectations were not made clear. We had no HR department, as it was a very small company, and there was no PIP, just conversations about what I was doing wrong. I tried to do better and could not figure out how to do so. The work simply wasn't something I am naturally good at and I have performed much better elsewhere doing other things. I would have benefited from a PIP, and I did feel blindsided, as I had been striving to improve and no one said that I was not improving. (In fact my immediate supervisor said that I was getting better and passed the buck on the layoff to her boss).

My bosses did get rather personal with me and I would have appreciated a less intrusive, more professional approach. Everything you wrote in your Ask can be written up in a PIP in language that doesn't get emotional. Doing so would have gone a long way in helping me understand what happened at that job. Instead, I was a bit traumatized when I was relatively new in the workforce. Acting like your employees' therapist or friend isn't healthy boundaries for you or them. Cultivating detached compassion might be a good way to approach your guilt over having to fire someone you genuinely like as a person. (Kind of like a breakup when you know it's not working out but you don't dislike your partner). Having been fired myself, when the shoe is on the other foot I too hate to do it, but sometimes it has to be done and both parties will be better off.
posted by Rainflower at 3:12 PM on July 9, 2013 [1 favorite]

If you are going to fire them, I think it's too late for the conversation you are envisaging. I'm not sure that what you describe is a matter of "fit", but I do think the insights you have into why they are struggling are good, and would (have) be(en) helpful to the employee in terms of helping them see how to fix the problems they are having and work on self-improvement. If they are going to be fired now, though, it's too late to fix these specific problems. If your HR person agrees that it is appropriate, you could maybe give the person a tip that they might be happier if their next job doesn't involve the sorts of things they have struggled with here, but honestly, they probably (a) know that already and (b) are unlikely to be able to be too picky about the next job in this economy and with a recent firing in their work history.
posted by lollusc at 8:53 PM on July 9, 2013

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