Software job: Am I going to get fired? How to make it go best-ish-ly?
December 25, 2013 1:42 PM   Subscribe

Do verbal warnings predict firing? What should I expect if I do get fired, and how do I make the best of it?

I've got a software job. Let's say I'm less than six months in. Manager was charming during hiring. After hiring, upper management told me that my manager was "intense," and I was told some anecdotes by team members without my asking. Manager almost always communicates harshly, tone dripping with sarcasm, skepticism, disbelief, condescension, suspicion, etc. Almost every interaction starting maybe within the first couple of weeks. Manager is impossible to talk to about anything.

Anyway, my working style is... different? I'm always the first one in, I work steadily, take an hour for lunch, I leave at five, and I don't answer email after five or on the weekends. Seems sane to me. But, I'm missing deadlines or I'm rushing and getting stuff done with low quality. The work does get acceptably done, but sometimes it's a couple weeks "late." (Many, many balls in the air at the same time.) My personal, uncommunicated estimates are pretty accurate, but I don't see any way to communicate them to Manager as they would sound ridiculously long, given the seeming expectations.

I have been verbally informed in what may or may not have been a one-on-one review meeting (during our normal weekly meeting time) that I need to work faster ("You can't keep..."), I need to take act more empowered, and need to carry things through, take initiative, etc. All this was in the usual dialed-up-to-eleven in-your-face harshness.

I think they want one or two more people added to the team in addition to me. They've been doing several phone interviews per week for months, and only one person has made it to on-site. I have some mildly specialized skills.

So, is there any way to predict if firing is imminent? There are so many unknown factors including management climate, etc. But are there any telltale signs? Do I read into this meeting? Three strikes? I'm not planning on changing my time-boxing, but I am going to try to visibly do what's asked within my time-boxing, as much as possible, anyway, which won't be too much. (I do stay late when deadlines are visible outside my team, by the way.)

If I do get fired, sooner or later, what can I expect? What are some things I should know as it's happening? What will I be asked to sign, etc., and should I?
posted by zeek321 to Work & Money (29 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Response by poster: (Will not thread-sit. Just wanted to add that the anger and intensity radiating from manager has been steadily increasing over time, though I wouldn't have thought that possible.)
posted by zeek321 at 1:48 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I can't predict whether or not you're going to get fired, but I want to ask if your choices about your time mesh with the rest of your team and the culture of your workplace. Not arguing whether or not they are "sane", just whether you're operating the same way as everyone else? I don't know much about your industry, but I'm a long time manager in a job that requires frequent and usually emergent OT-if everyone but the new guy stepped up and worked extra and was flexible about that, the new guy wouldn't fit in well. Especially since you're frequently missing deadlines, by several weeks. Not saying you're wrong, and not excusing manager's behavior, but if working more than 40 hours a week is necessary in this job and you refuse, well, I'm guessing it's not a good match for you.
posted by purenitrous at 1:59 PM on December 25, 2013 [15 favorites]

This job sounds like it may not be ideal. I understand it may pay well or be close to home or be close to your ideal job skill use. But how easy would it for you to get another job? If my boss were 'intense' and I was at all worried about getting fired, I'd be looking for another job. Maybe you can discretely start asking some of your contacts about other opportunities. Other than that - if there is someone above your boss who realizes he's 'crazy' you could try and enlist them on your side. This move may get you fired, but it has a chance of helping you keep your job or even getting you moved to another group/promoted. Alliance building above your boss is a great option if you don't care if you're going to get fired.
posted by Kalmya at 2:12 PM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I was completely on board with your working style, till I got to the part about you regularly missing deadlines (by weeks sometimes?) and the low quality issues. You can do that type of schedule if you pull your weight, but it sounds like you are not maybe? I don't think they will fire you right away, but you have been warned to work faster, and I expect that if you don't take that to heart now, they will let you go, and sooner rather than later.

It seems like the "style" of your boss is perhaps preventing you from being fully invested in the job and your performance? If so you may want to get another job or, as Kalmya says, try for a lateral move.
posted by gudrun at 2:18 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

No one can predict whether you are going to be fired, but I can tell you that the language you've used in writing this question make me think that you should be looking for a new job. Reading this as a manager, you're walking a thin line, doing a poor job, and making excuses for it.
posted by sm1tten at 2:19 PM on December 25, 2013 [21 favorites]

But are there any telltale signs?

Yes. You are already experiencing them. Regular failure to meet deadlines, increasing frustration from your boss, ultimatums regarding your work. I won't say this is irreparable, but fixing this will require you to give up your "different" working style and adopt one that allows you to meet your boss' expectations, even if that seems unfair to you.

Seconding purenitrous, re: this job seems like a remarkably poor fit for you.

Start sending your resume around now, just to be safe. You'll be prepared if you are fired, and hopefully you will find a better fitting job even if you're not fired.
posted by schroedingersgirl at 2:23 PM on December 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

Hey zeek, I'm in the industry with about 20 years of experience in all roles, from developer to executive. I'm not going to suggest what you *should* do, but rather try to answer your specific question: how do I know if I am going to get fired?

First indicator is size of company and state you are working in. Large companies have more formal HR processes where a line manager can't just unilaterally fire someone without going through a process that will certainly involve a conversation with you about fixing whatever problems they perceive you have. Note that if you break your companies code of conduct (something bad, like say a fistfight in the workplace), you can get fired immediately. This isn't the situation I'm hearing here.

For a software developer job, there are going to be a bunch of pragmatic considerations that your boss will be asking himself, even if he does want to fire you:

- How difficult to backfill your position? (market may be tight for developers, and you mention something about specific skills)
- Is there a big project going on with a hard deadline? Pulling you out may be something he would put off until the code ships
- How many team members do you have that he can spread your work across if he pulls you out?
- What about your specific work? Are you doing something that is highly individual (say, writing a device driver) that requires some knowledge transfer?
- Have your missed deadlines caused any schedule slips for the team as a whole?
- How would pulling you out affect morale? If everyone else on your team are working insane hours and you are time boxing to 40, there might be a lot of hard feelings, as purenitrous noted above.

Good luck with your situation.
posted by kovacs at 2:31 PM on December 25, 2013 [5 favorites]

OK, it looks like you need to have a one-on-one conversation with your manager, and try to get a feel for what's going on. Nobody but him will be able to inform you exactly what is going on.

My take on your situation is that there is very little communication going on between you and your manager. It's normal to have estimates that are long, but you need to communicate those upfront before beginning an activity, and have some reasonably good justifications for the basis of your estimate. This is a common problem in the software world, where things sometimes take longer than expected to finish.

Your working style sounds good to me. If you're not getting things done in that time, and your personal estimates are accurate, do speak up and bring them up. It's about managing expectations. Ideally you shouldn't be expected to stay late consistently or work on weekends to meet deadlines (not all the time anyway). If this is expected all the time, then you will have no choice but to change your work style.

Have a conversation with your manager, maybe ask him about the new people he's hiring, and if he wants you to mentor/coach them/lead them (if they're junior). You may be able to find out indirectly what's going on in his mind and where you fit in the overall picture in the near future.

Typically rules for firing vary from organization to organization, in some places you need to have a poor performance review which can form the basis of a case to fire you.

I would take the gossip about your manager with a pinch of salt, set all that stuff aside and get a feel for him myself.

Good luck!
posted by the_ancient_mariner at 2:32 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

In almost any large corporate/professional workforce verbal warnings may precede firing, but for various reasons (process, legal, etc) written warnings are basically mandatory - having a paper trail before you fire someone is the preference of almost any larger corporate organisation, unless you are a contractor or still in probation, maybe.
posted by smoke at 2:33 PM on December 25, 2013

If it's a biggish company, they will usually do something more formal before firing you, putting you on a "performance improvement plan" with very specific things that you either need to do or you will be fired. That will almost certainly include things like meeting deadlines and certain quality measures.

I don't think they're ready to fire you yet, but definitely getting close. So, here's a few things:
Leaving at 5 when you aren't getting your work done to good quality in the time frames set out for you is basically a recipe for dissatisfaction, even if the deadlines you are being given aren't reasonable. I'm all for timeboxing, but you need to be really clearly owning the deadline process and delivering truly impeccable work. You should also take a hard look at whether you are able to deliver the quality they need and expect from someone at your level in the hours you put in at work. If you are unable to do this, you can either put in more hours, or find a place with easier work for you to do or generally lower expectations.
posted by ch1x0r at 2:37 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

At my job, it always goes like this:

- (possibly) Counseling, not officially "counting against you," but we do put a letter in your file.
- "Oral" reprimand either the first time you do something wrong or the second, if you basically ever got a counseling. You sign a paper saying we did it, and we put it in your file, and it basically guarantees you won't be getting a raise.
- Written reprimand, if you got an oral within the last year
- 3-day suspension, if you got a written in the last two years
- 5-day suspension, if you got a 3-day within the last two years
- 10-day suspension, if you got a 5-day within the last two years
- If in the next two years from the 10-day you do something else, you might get a negotiated "last chance agreement." Those can last more than two years. You should consider yourself very, very lucky.

If it's really bad, we will skip straight to suspensions; we fire for things like getting convicted of a felony directly related to your job duties. We however let you have one second chance (lifetime) if you get caught intoxicated on the job.

This is the most protection I have ever heard of; you even get hearings and appeals after the "written" step.

I'd be very surprised, in private industry, to meet a person who'd gotten more than two or three formal reprimands in the last year, who was still in their job. I'd expect them to be doing some amazingly solid work, anyway, or be the favorite niece of a key client or whatever. The kind of people who never get a formal reprimand to begin with. You've probably met them; it's unlikely any of them work for your manager.

(Yes, I think you're on the way to being fired. Please be looking for a new job - as an HR person one of the things I'd hope for in a candidate is the wisdom to get out before you're forced out.)
posted by SMPA at 2:39 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, the paper trail thing is often more about the manager keeping an accurate record of what he said to you and when, rather than there being written formal letters and plans and such. Do not rely on the "I don't have a written performance plan" thing unless you know your employer's procedures for sure.

When we get requests from the unemployment people, they like employee-signed "yes I got that" paperwork, but it's far from the only thing they're willing to accept as far as documentation is concerned. We also tend to send them sections of our employee policies that apply to the behavior in question, and there's a whole section devoted to getting your work done and communicating with your supervisors/managers (how, when, why, etc.) What you're describing is totally sufficient for a series of write-ups and progressive discipline in my environment, and we have fired people for that sort of stuff (after going through the tortuous steps described previously.) Realistically, that result depends on the supervisor's determination to press the issue.
posted by SMPA at 2:45 PM on December 25, 2013

You should be looking for a new job. In the meantime, use this one to practice skills that will probably serve you throughout your career.

I'd start with this:

My personal, uncommunicated estimates are pretty accurate, but I don't see any way to communicate them to Manager as they would sound ridiculously long, given the seeming expectations.

and this:

I need to take act more empowered, and need to carry things through, take initiative

Take your manager at their word, and start articulating your internal estimates to your manager. Deal with any blow-back, and then, as calmly as you can, talk things through. I'd say that you should stick to your guns, but that's not quite right, because if you can break through this dysfunctional communication with your manager, you might learn some things that would allow you to get shit done faster.

No one likes looking like an idiot, and because you don't want to face your manager's wrath, you are guaranteeing more of your manager's wrath because you are setting them up to look like an idiot because they can't hope to give realistic estimates to the people they have to deal with (including your peers).

Your manager may be a complete ass, but that doesn't change the fact that you have your own responsibilities. In my view, those responsibilities are to find yourself a job that is a reasonable fit, and, whether or not your job is a reasonable fit, to try to behave in a reasonable manner. While it is understandable that you may have trouble communicating with this manager, it is also unreasonable to tacitly or explicitly agree to deadlines you are quite confident you will not be able to make.
posted by Good Brain at 2:49 PM on December 25, 2013 [7 favorites]

You need to work longer hours, or get a job that doesn't expect you to work longer than standard hours. It sounds like, by design, it's not possible for you to get your work done in 40 hour weeks. Welcome to the vast majority of "9-to-5" jobs.

And yeah. If you're seriously weeks late on deadlines and uncommunicative to anyone about this, you can expect this to be a problem in any workplace, asshole boss or not. Appearance is 99% of the battle in issues like this - if you can demonstrate that you're working longer hours (whether you're actually doing it or just looking like you're doing it - I go as far as to schedule e-mails to go out at weird times) and you starting being more honest about your workload and what you can reasonably expect to get done, you should be able to avert the axe.
posted by downing street memo at 3:15 PM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

I predict you get fired as soon as they finish the search for at least one more team member for your group. They got nothing to lose by replacing you. You work specific hours rather than whatever it takes to meet a deadline, your work is adequate but not terrific by your own admission and your sense of urgency is "different".

When you get fired, unless it is for cause, you can and should collect unemployment. I would not sign anything they put in front of you unless they are offering material compensation for your signing.

If I were you, I would start looking for my next job now. I think your best bet to find something that suits your skill set and time boxing is either working for the government or finding a position in an organization such as a school that focuses as much on quality of life issues for its employees as it does on cash remuneration.
posted by JohnnyGunn at 4:16 PM on December 25, 2013 [4 favorites]

It sounds like you should be looking for a new job regardless of whether you're about to be fired.
posted by Jacqueline at 5:26 PM on December 25, 2013 [3 favorites]

My personal, uncommunicated estimates are pretty accurate, but I don't see any way to communicate them to Manager as they would sound ridiculously long, given the seeming expectations.

Time to change that so that your estimates are communicated. At my job we will be given a task - Project X, and asked to break our involvement into the project up into discreet tasks, and estimate effort and duration for those tasks. There's often a lot of "why will this take 2 weeks?" discussion that can often be very useful, to find out that though I thought a particular thing was important to the client, in fact they would rather skip it to deliver 2 weeks earlier. Or maybe they didn't realise if we didn't do certain tasks there could be repercussions, so they are happy to have the extra 2 weeks after an explanation.

If you aren't having that conversation I'd start, call a meeting with your boss, talk about your current workload, explain your estimates, and then ask if that matches their expectations.
posted by Admira at 5:38 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not to add to the bad news, but I think no one's mentioned the possibility of layoffs. There is no need for a warning for these, so they can happen at any time-- especially if you're perceived to be the least valuable worker (but you do get unemployment).
posted by zompist at 6:04 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

This is not about your asshole boss. This is about your inability to perform at the level that is expected of an employee in your position at your company.

yeah, 'weeks late' is not good. but i think it that asshole boss/culture is no good, either.

you need find a shop that believes in evidence-based management (e.g. long hours create defects) and a forty hour week. also, the Joel test is oft-recommended criteria.

get out now.
posted by j_curiouser at 8:35 PM on December 25, 2013 [2 favorites]

I'd like to offer a dissenting opinion. Not about whether or not a firing may be imminent, it likely is, but about the failure to meet deadlines, etc issue.

Your boss sounds like a sociopath. It sounds like communicating realistic estimates would be counterproductive. There's a good deal of industry standard guides (The Mythical Man Month, Peopleware, etc) that all indicate that working more than 40 hours a week doesn't actually get more done. My experience only supports those conclusions.

Your team sounds completely dysfunctional, which is what you'd expect with a raging asshole at the helm.

The upshot of this, though, is exactly what everyone else said - get out now.
posted by colin_l at 9:05 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

I want to add, I've seen good, experienced people who'd have no problem getting another job stick around in these kinds of toxic environments. I can't fathom why; my best guess is that they have some kind of misguided loyalty, a concern that by leaving it will make things worse for their co-sufferers.

I don't care what hours someone works, or how much work they aren't getting done. "condescension, suspicion," "in-your-face-harshness" are completely unacceptable in any working environment (outside boot camp, I guess). And in that kind of environment, I'd assume any individual's failure to deliver is a management failure.
posted by colin_l at 9:13 PM on December 25, 2013 [6 favorites]

Your boss sounds like a sociopath.

This seems accurate. As you can see in several places above, this kind of mentality is unfortunately not that uncommon in this industry (or in most industries, I suppose.)

Yes, it's your responsibility to meet deadlines, or to negotiate more appropriate ones. But if your boss is not a reasonable human being, that's not possible and that's not your fault. As far as checking email outside of work hours, unless you're specifically on-call that's not relevant or necessary and no qualified manager or colleague will ever use it as a metric of whether you "give a single shit."

Best of luck in your search- remember there are good people and good situations out there, even if you're seeing some evidence to the contrary here.
posted by drjimmy11 at 11:19 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

Mod note: A few comments deleted. Guys, let's respond to the query here, rather than scold or just generally comment or offer advice that doesn't address the main question(s) at all. If you are unsure what is being asked, please look at the last two paragraphs of the post. Thanks.
posted by taz (staff) at 11:33 PM on December 25, 2013

But, I'm missing deadlines or I'm rushing and getting stuff done with low quality. The work does get acceptably done, but sometimes it's a couple weeks "late."

I need to work faster ("You can't keep..."), I need to take act more empowered, and need to carry things through, take initiative, etc.

I think they want one or two more people added to the team in addition to me. They've been doing several phone interviews per week for months, and only one person has made it to on-site.

More than likely, they are trying to replace you with someone who can do what you do quicker and with more initiative. The only saving grace for you (if you want it to be) is that they seem to be having difficulty replacing you. If you want to step up, step up because the job appears to still be yours as per your manager's line about what you need to do to keep your job (because obviously finding someone to replace you is a PITA for your manager).

I personally feel that you've already been given enough "notice" that you seriously have to change or you're gone.
posted by heyjude at 11:39 PM on December 25, 2013 [1 favorite]

I have to say if you're missing deadlines, handing in mediocre work weeks late, and not communicating with your boss, it's not a if I'm going to get fired, it's a when am I going to get fired question.

That answer is going to be different for everyone here, I can tell you how it works where I'm at but that's no guarantee that's how it works where you're at. The best bet for you is to ask around at work and see how it's been handled in the past.
posted by timesarrow at 7:00 AM on December 26, 2013 [3 favorites]

The fact that you are good at estimating the time it will take you to complete programming tasks is wonderful. As you probably know, programmers are often pressured to give unrealistic estimates, or are just handed deadlines that will never happen. A good manager will know that steady, predictable work is a very useful thing.

The quality issues could be more of a problem, so it makes sense for you to look into ways to improve the quality of your code (unit testing? refactoring? buzzword-of-the-month that means thinking more clearly?). This is something positive you can start doing now (so you're not just worrying all the time -- you can _do_ something). You might have to put some of your free time into learning new skills, but it can be fun and fulfilling, and it's still maybe less than many public school teachers do on her free time -- I say this only to give you something to say to your family if you need to convince them :)

I know a lot of other answerers are saying you must prepare to change jobs, and maybe that will be good for you. However, my personal feeling is that neither you nor we have enough information to know whether that's completely certain. You can either make the decision yourself, if the job is really bad for your happiness, or ask for more information from your employers, or live with the uncertainty (while preparing appropriate contingency plans). Your choice.

Good luck. You will get through this.
posted by amtho at 7:51 AM on December 26, 2013

How to predict if you will be fired:

You have verbal and written warnings about the quality and quantity of your work.

The department or company is being restructured and it does not appear that your position will be necessary.

There is a posting for your job and they are actively interviewing people for it.

You miss deadlines, don't seem too concerned about it, and don't alter your behavior even if you've been asked to do so.

What your firing will look like:

You will be called into a meeting without warning and HR will be there.

You will be told that you are being terminated.

If any severance is offered, they will explain what it is. If none is offered, they will tell you.

In some companies you will be paid for unused leave, in others, you won't.

If you are fired for cause, you will not be eligible for unemployment.

HR will take your computer and you won't have any chance to get anything off of it.

HR will take your badge, entrance card, phone, and any other company issued things.

You will be wiped off the company email and you will no longer have access to company systems.

HR will watch you clean out your desk, and walk you to the door.

Your co-workers will not look you in the eye.

What to do to stall or prevent firing:

Ask your boss for an action plan of specific things to do. These will be SMART goals.

Better yet, go to your boss with SMART goals, and say, "I know that you've been disappointed in my work, I really like this position and want to keep it, to that end, I've developed these goals. I'd like to refine them with you. I'd like this documented so that we can agree that when I achive these goals, that the previous warnings will be amended." Be sure to document this in an email, sending it to your boss, his boss and HR. Also BCC to your private email. This can give you a basis for an appeal on unemployment, should you be terminated.

Start mirroring the start and stop times of your co-workers and your boss. You may not like to work long hours but this is about re-habbing your reputation. Right now you are perceived as a time-clock puncher, not a professional.

Evaluate all of the projects you currently have and write up a summary of where you are, what you need to be provided with by others, and the time-frame you anticipate for completion. If there are things you need, that you don't have, to meet deadlines, tell your boss.

If you have too many things on your plate, you need to send up a flare. Not just to your boss, but to your boss's boss. Your missing deadlines, or providing low quality work puts EVERYTHING at risk for them, and if it has to happen, better to provide a warning early and often, then to blindside them at the last minute, when they can't do anything about it.

Better yet, stop taking on work that you can't complete with quality, on time. If your boss says, "I need you to develop the code for the Framistannie." You need to say, "Well, I've got a January deadline for Thingamajig, a February deadline for Whatchamacallit, I can't get around to Framistannie until March at the earliest." If your boss won't listen, send an email and copy his boss with the information. It won't matter, but they won't be broadsided.

What you should do NOW:

I doubt that this situation is salvageable. You have a reputation as a time-clock-punching, deadline missing, low quality producing, inflexible employee. You can turn one of those things around, but very rarely can you turn ALL of them around.

They may not be hiring extra people, they may be hiring your replacement.

Clear your computer of ALL personal documents, clear your internet cache/history too.

Take home ALL personal items. Don't make a big deal, but slip one or two things home with you each night until all that's left is your company issued stapler and desk calendar.

Expect that you will be fired. The new year is an EXCELLENT time to start looking for a new job. Be sure to create a narrative that explains why you need a new job after six months. Be sure to say, "I'm really possessive of my work/life balance, in my previous position I was expected to do the work of two people, and that didn't mesh well for me."

Interview them while they interview you. Ask questions like, "What's a typical day like?" and "Tell me about your projects." "What is the average tenure of other programmers in your department?"

You can survive this, but you have to take your head out of the sand, face up to some truths and be willing to change.

Good Luck.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 7:55 AM on December 26, 2013 [11 favorites]

Anyway, my working style is... different? I'm always the first one in, I work steadily, take an hour for lunch, I leave at five, and I don't answer email after five or on the weekends.

I just wanted to add one thing. If in fact, you are fired, or choose to leave, you should know that in NYC tech jobs, the idea that you would not check email ever after work or on weekends is just not very common. You really need to ask about this and make it pretty clear in the interview process that you do not want to do this, because it is the norm that at least sometimes if not often tech employees need to be reachable after hours to support their systems.
posted by ch1x0r at 7:24 AM on December 28, 2013

I have been a software manager over 20 years in 3 different high tech companies. In each case, we had a HR department with a process that must be used to fire someone for performance problems. If you have an employee handbook, you should check that to see if there is any insight there into the performance management process.

Typically a verbal warning that places you in the formal performance management process is documented via a letter which goes to you, HR, and is placed in your personnel file. This states the expectations that must be met for you to keep your job. Your boss's boss signs off on this process and so does HR. The conversation you had with your boss doesn't sound like this step although that may be coming. In my current job, we don't go through this step -- we just have a "performance improvement plan" which documents what must happen for you to keep your job. There is typically a deadline -- 30, 60, or 90 days for completion of the PIP. You may be let go prior to completion of the PIP.

In my current company, HR tries to negotiate a "mutual separation" -- I believe you get 2 weeks pay and future employers are not told you have been fired. I'm not sure about unemployment eligibility.

I agree with others who have suggested looking for another job.
posted by elmay at 4:33 PM on December 28, 2013

« Older Should I get the Dr. Who DVD or just watch on...   |   How can I redirect my FedEx package to a different... Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.