8.23.2010

Firing a Friend Review


Have you ever had the opportunity to break a heart or crush a man’s soul? Look him in the eye and tell him he isn’t good enough? Recognize that he is just 5 years away from retiring with a 20+ year career at the same company, and yet still drop him like a bad habit? Well my friends, as a newly appointed member of engineering middle management, that is exactly what I had to do. There will be a special place in hell for me, I know, but I did everything I could….really.

Consider the following: I am a strapping 33 year old who was offered a position as manager over a small group of engineers after 9 years at a large tech. company. Problem number one is the fact that I am the youngest member of the group and after 9 years working next to these guys, I’m now the supervisor. With the change also came the new charter of being a stronger, more efficient, do-more-with-less group. We are the stragglers after at least 3 rounds of lay-offs over the last few years and we are tasked with finding some way to keep our company afloat in this madness we call an economy.

So I go to work. I meet with everyone, but honestly, I didn’t really need to. Over the last several years it has become obvious who does what. Everyone understands the company’s situation and is already doing way more than should be expected, well… everyone but Frank, that is. Frank, as we will call him, is a 62 year old engineer who has been working quietly in the background at our company for 20+ years. He doesn’t talk much, comes in at 6:30am on the dot, and leaves at 3:30pm exactly. He hasn’t really produced anything useful in the entire time I have been there, but he is staring at his screen the entire time he is at work. He doesn’t screw around, but puts in his time doing something that looks like work. No socializing and no internet except when he is eating lunch at his desk, which he does every single day. All that time working, but nothing is being produced, nothing is ever delivered.

I take a look at his responsibilities and see that he has been given nothing but busy work as he is too slow to meet any reasonable deadline. He is in a protected class of aged workers, so the company has been very careful so as not to discriminate, and his previous boss kept him around basically as a buffer in case of another layoff. When confronted, our previous boss admitted that he didn’t trust him with any real work. Now he is my problem.

Formal analysis of the group’s workload shows that everyone is working overtime, has deadlines, is on-call, and is handling large numbers of high visibility projects. Again, everyone but Frank. This can’t continue, so I redistribute the workload. Frank is now expected to do everything that all the other members of the group are required to do. As you can imagine, this is more than a disturbance to Frank‘s routine. Oh, did I mention that Frank is probably the nicest guy you have ever met in your life. If you saw him and his ever-present smile, you would likely just walk up and give him a big hug.

Well, that change in his routine was the beginning of the end. The carnage that followed will forever live as a black mark on my soul. Frank took a stand. He recognized his protected class and his perceived experience in the industry. He challenged the system and refused my changes. I met with him weekly and over the next four months watched that infectious smile turn to a furrowed brow and a look of disgust every time I walked by. I set up goals for him, with deadlines, and he refused to partake. I offered more training, left him on his unique schedule, asked if there was anything I could do to help him succeed, but he was set in what he was doing and refused to adjust it. After working with H.R. to put him on corrective action, he made the worst move possible. He had a private meeting with my boss and said that I was harassing him with an undoable workload. Further investigation revealed that he hadn’t really produced anything of use in the last 10 years, so our company had paid him over a million dollars for, basically, nothing. Now, not only had he signed his own death warrant, but his old supervisor was in trouble for not handling this sooner…way sooner.

We proceeded with the three strikes of corrective action and when at last I had my exit interview with him, he seemed shocked that what was happening was even possible. Near the end, I had resorted to begging him, pleading for him to finish-up anything that would give me an out. Give me anything I can work with because once H.R. is involved, there is no room for subjective decisions. He did not. So night after night, I lost sleep wondering how the hell I was going to do what I had to do to someone I had known so long and really liked.

The other thing I couldn‘t understand is how he had seen coworker after coworker walked to the door with the countless layoffs that our industry has, yet it was beyond his grasp that he could be affected. He was oblivious to reality, the state of the company, and his place in it. When it came down to it, I so wished someone would have given him a severance package and handled it in a much less brutal, dignified way. However, I don’t have room for buffers in my group, every precious spot has to be filled with someone productive or we won‘t have a company much longer.

So I sat across the desk from him and told him it was done, that he was fired. He asked how much time he had to find another job, and again and I had to explain the obvious. No time, I had to escort him out right then. His things had been packed when he was on break. Alone, I walked him out the front door and as he left, he turned and looked at me with such distain and disgust that I thought he might hit me. It was awful, but it would have been much worse if he only knew what I knew, that he wasn’t qualified for the job he had, and probably hadn’t been for the last 10 years. That there is no way in the world he will ever get another job in this industry. That he wasn’t only done in our company, he is done in engineering, period. I removed him from his 20 year home, his job, his career, and his friends.

As I think of it now, it was reminiscent of the book Of Mice and Men. “Tell me about the rabbits George”………………BANG!

May God have mercy on my soul.

2 comments:

Gary Anderson said...

You could have been killed not just punched. Happens a lot. And as far as going to heaven is concerned, I doubt it. God chooses who he wants.

Linda said...

You know what? You did what every manager has to do and it is horrible when an employee takes the stand Frank did. Hang in there! :D

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