A Practical Guide to Managing Bad Employees

Hal commented on last year’s post The Dead Simple Guide To Being a Good Manager and asked for some solutions to Step 1: Make It Terrible to be Bad.  There is one simple and effective technique that I’ve used (and seen used) multiple times and I can sum it up in 4 words:

Remove the hiding places

Bad employees continue to be bad because they are, somehow, able to convince themselves and/or others that they aren’t bad.  They hide in all the little places that we create when we aren’t careful, scurrying to their favorite spots when things aren’t going their way.  The bad news is that we, as managers and peers, create these hideouts when we aren’t clear and when we accept anything less than clarity. The good news is that you can start fixing things immediately by being clear and demanding clarity.  Here’s what I mean:

  1. Define success in unambiguous terms.  It’s unfair to fault someone for not being good if it’s not clear what “being good” means.
  2. Prefer to be clear over being right.  Ditch terms like “leverage”, “strategic”, “high-level” and other words that can be defined retroactively to support any outcome.  Instead, state things in terms that can be proven right or wrong, even if that means that you’ll be proven wrong sometimes.
  3. Be objective.  Measure according to the standards you’ve laid out.

One Last Chance In Private

Once you have clearly defined success and expectations, counsel your troubled employee in private.  This is a critical step, because this is where you can find out if the problem is actually yours and not theirs.  If you’ve done everything above then it should be obvious to both of you that your employee is falling short.  What you’re looking for is a sign that they understood what was expected and they simply didn’t deliver.  This private counsel is also where you can separate bad employees from immature ones.  The immature ones didn’t believe that it was important, the bad ones didn’t care that it was important.  If you find yourself counseling an immature employee, then you have a great opportunity to turn someone’s life around.  Spend a little extra time with them over the coming weeks and break things down to the smallest feasible chunks so you can provide plenty of feedback.  If they turnaround and become good then you’ve become not just a good manager, but a great one.  If they don’t turnaround, then chances are they acted immaturely when really they’re not going to get any better.

One Last Chance In Public

If private counsel didn’t work, then it’s time to go public.  Make it clear in a meeting, with other team members present, that the work (not the worker)  is unacceptable.  Once again, if you’ve defined things clearly then this should be obvious to everyone in the room.  It won’t be comfortable, but it’s important for a couple of reasons:

  1. It gives peer pressure/support a chance to work.  If the team rallies around the weakest link and helps him succeed, then you have another shot at turnaround.  If the team shuns him, then it’s not going to be a fun place for him to work.
  2. It sends a message to the team that you mean what you say.
  3. It can begin the self selection process where they figure out that they’re in the wrong place and relocate themselves elsewhere.  It is almost always easier to have someone voluntarily leave than to have to terminate them.

3 Strikes, You’re Out

After the previous last chances, failure to improve should result in termination.  When you terminate someone, they should never be surprised.  They can be pissed, they can even be shocked because they never thought you’d actually do it, but they should have seen it coming.  Everyone should see it coming.  Most should be relieved or appreciative.

To Be Clear

After mentioning clarity so many times, it seems appropriate to make a few things explicit:

  • Making things “terrible” is all about exposing bad work and making someone uncomfortable with their actions and choices.
  • This is not an excuse to be mean.
  • You need to be fair and objective.
  • There has to be an opportunity for turnaround.
  • There will be work and discomfort on your part.

Stick to your guns and prune respectfully and you’re on your way to being a good manager.  Go the extra mile and actually turn someone around and you’ll be great.  Either way, you and your team will be better off for it.


A Big Swinging Year

2011 was a big year for me and since it represented a lot of what it means to be a Big Swinging anything I felt a post was in order.  To be clear, “big” doesn’t always mean “good”.  2011 was rough.  The startup that I had been working on for months vaporized in a matter of days.  I had the worst job of my development career.  I had clients who didn’t pay for months.  At the other end of the spectrum, I got to work a lot with one of the most talented developers I know.  I got coached by the most successful person I know.  Finally, I ended the year with an ideal client portfolio which should set up 2012 to be even bigger, and definitely better, than 2011.  Here are some things that I learned.

Give As Much As You Can, Then Stop

The year started with me wrapping up a contract that I had been on for more than a year and jumping back into the startup world.  I had been working on the startup during off-hours for a couple of months and had picked up some great new skills (MongoDB, IronPython, ASP.NET MVC 3, etc.)  I had negotiated my ideal combination of great salary and good equity stake and was ready to work on the company full-time.  I had no problem working for free for several months and paying some travel expenses because I really wanted to make the deal happen.  Then, it all unravelled in the course of a few days.  The partner on the business side decided that the salary I was asking was too high.  This was months after I thought we had agreed and after this partner had told our only investor that he wasn’t needed.  In the past, I probably would have compromised to make it work since I had already invested a bunch of time and effort, but I’ve matured since then.  The combination of recognizing sunk costs and having an unwavering requirement that I trust my partners led me to withdraw.  It was hard (and somewhat scary) to abandon the path that I had committed myself to for many months, but I had given all that I was willing to and once I was asked for more it was time for me to stop.  Since I had set a “if I don’t have signed paperwork by this date then I’m out” deadline, it was clear that it was time for me to leave even though it wasn’t easy.  Know what you’re willing to give, but be honest enough about it that if you’re asked for more then you stop.

It’s Hypocritical To Not Get An Outside Perspective

After leaving the startup path, I needed to figure out what was next.  Quickly.  The nervousness of not having work lined up really drove me.  Crazy.  The problem with being both driven and crazy at the same time is that you thrash.  You end up expending incredible amounts of effort for near-zero progress . . . or worse.  I was fortunate in that one of my business partners is an incredible coach and he made it clear that we needed to talk.  I don’t remember anything we discussed during the hour except him saying, “With options comes power.”  My problem was less about not knowing what to do and more about *needing* to do something. I took his overall advice of “get a few clients who will pay so you’re not dependent on any of them” and started working on my client portfolio.  After I got things back on track I realized how hypocritical it was for me to not seek an outside perspective from the beginning: That’s a big part of what I sell!

Find Enough Clients Who Can Pay

For the rest of my career, I am likely to have at least 2 clients.  An ideal number for now is 3 or 4, but it takes at least 2 in order to have options, and therefore power.  One of my clients is a startup and startups sometimes run out of money.  There’s a big difference between a client who is unwilling to pay and a client who is unable to pay.  If they’re unwilling to pay, the relationship has probably been destroyed and things quickly turn into strictly business decisions.  If a client is unable to pay, however, things are a little different.  It is in the nature of startups to reach beyond their grasp and sometimes they fall.  I happen to really like this particular client so I checked in with them once a month, but never in a mean or threatening manner.  Because I had other clients who *could* (and did) pay, I had the option of waiting.  It took a good 3 or 4 months, but they raised another round of funding, sent me a check, and we’re back to working together.  If I had been demanding or unpleasant during their inability to pay, we probably wouldn’t be working together now AND it wouldn’t have changed the fact that they couldn’t pay.  If you have enough clients who can pay, you have the option of working with some who may not . . . and they’re often the most enjoyable.

The Happiest People I Know Are Where They Put Themselves

I read a lot of blogs and talk to a lot of people about their work and their lives.  One thing that really crystallized this year is that people who are in a place intentionally are much happier than those who have “ended up” someplace.  And it’s not just the rich ones who started something that became big, it’s also the folks who decided what they wanted to do with their lives and set themselves up around that.  This is sort of an extension or evolution of, “Do what you love and the money will follow” because I think that that phrase needs a bit of updating.  I’ve seen plenty of people who love technology or software development, but are f’ing miserable because they’re in a situation not entirely of their choosing.  Chances are you know someone like this.  He liked computers and software and learned to code.  He found a job somewhere because he needed a job and things were somewhere between fine and great in the beginning.  Over time, he got worn down by the company environment until he ended up with a position he would have never consciously chosen.  But he’s stuck.  He’s afraid to go somewhere else and now he’s just kind of “ended up” doing what he’s doing.  Contrast that with someone who has created her own position to do work she enjoys, even if it doesn’t pay a lot (as long as it’s “enough”).  She’s invested in making things work.  She’s set up her work to integrate with her life.  And she has options.  If things don’t work the way she thought, she can always redesign and renegotiate the position.  She’s there by choice and since she chooses to do what’s she’s doing she’s better at it and happier overall.  When I find myself in a job because I need it, it’s not very long until it starts to wear on me.  When I’m working on a project that I helped create, however, I’m committed to it and energized by it.  I’m not suggesting that choosing your work is the answer to all your problems or the one true path to happiness, but I have observed (and lived) that people who consciously choose their work are happier than those who don’t.

Here's to a Big Swinging 2012!

Options, Options, Options!

There are almost no advantages to being the son of a world renowned economist. One thing that keeps it from being a total wash, however, is that I got introduced to the concept of optionality at an early age. I honestly don’t remember when I became aware of it, although I can remember thinking the term “synthetic puts” sounded cool when I was 12 or so.  Even though I didn’t understand the underlying math until much later, I grew up with at least a subconscious realization that the ability to choose was worth something.

In my early 20s, I started trading stock options online.

I was horrible at it. 

I was buying options, which meant I was paying someone for the ability to make a choice. 

I was in my early 20s, which meant that I made really bad choices. 

So there I was, paying someone to let me make bad choices.  I stopped in my mid 20s after I grew tired of losing money.  The concept of optionality stuck with me, however, and I’ve incorporated it into my approach to both software and clients. 

On the software side, this often means decoupling.  I don’t favor decoupling because it’s cool, I favor it because I’m wrong a lot and want to be able to fix my mistakes as quickly and easily as possible. Decoupling gives you options because it reduces the impact of changes, meaning that you can make more changes. Particularly in business software (and espectially in large enterprise systems), you can bet that change is coming.  Requirements change.  Systems that need to be integrated change.  Business processes change.  If your system can keep up with this change, it's a lot more valuable than one that can't.

On the client side, I sell a wide array of options and clients like it even if they don’t realize that that's what it is.  Instead of saying, “Here’s the deal: You pay me X and I’ll deliver Y” I almost always offer choices.  The actual choices aren't important here, the important thing is that no matter what they choose the work they need will get done.  Sometimes that means paying for my own hardware, software, hosting, etc.  Other times it means travelling to be on-site with them or their clients.  The point is, that by offering them the option(s) to do things their way, I get to charge a premium over someone who simply sells billable hours sitting in front of a screen.

If you can provide optionality that's valuable, you can sell it and collect the premium.

As a bookend to the previous mention of options trading, I returned to it recently for a bit (now in my mid-to-late 30s) and did pretty well.  The difference?  Instead of buying options, I sold them through credit spreads since I now realize that my value is in providing optionality rather than using it.

The Dead Simple Guide To Being a Good Manager

I've been fortunate in my career to have had a couple of great managers.  The rare combination of vision and execution found in my managers at Microsoft Research and DuClaw Brewing Company have established a kind of gold standard in my mind.  I've been thinking about management a lot lately.  I'll probably be head down doing technical work for the next few months, but after that I hope to build and run a new technical team.  Even though I aspire to be like the outstanding managers I've worked for, I don't think you have to be great to be successful.  As a matter of fact, I think that being a good manager can be distilled into 2 simple steps.

Step 1: Make It Terrible to be Bad

There are plenty of good people who are bad employees, especially in the technical world.  Since I've worked mostly in software, I'll focus there for a moment but the same principle is applicable to any industry.  My definition of a good developer is one who develops good software.  It's no surprise then that I think a bad developer is someone who doesn't develop good software.  As a manager, it's your job to make the environment unpleasant for bad employees.  Yes, you get extra points for offering up solutions to their crapitude like training and whatnot but even if you don't you can still be good manager simply by making bad employees not want to be there.  Why am I harping on this so much?  Because bad employees are a cancer to a team and they kill the team from the inside.  First we have displacement – a bad employee is sitting in the seat that could be occupied by a good one.  Next we have infection – bad employees have a very strong potential to turn others bad either by active instruction ("Here, junior dev, let me show you the wrong way") or through passive observance ("Why should I be any better if that guy sucks and he's still here?").  And finally we have repulsion – good employees don't enjoy working with bad ones so they leave.

Step 2: Make it Easy to be Good

The step is all about clearing the path for your direct reports.  Most technical people really enjoy what they do, it's all the other stupid stuff that turns what they enjoy into "work".  This is one of the reasons so many good and great developers work for start-ups, small software companies, or the few "big name" companies that you read about all the time like Google.  It's about the purity of the work as much as it is about the work itself.  This is where most companies inflict Death By 1000 Cuts – poorly managed web filtering that blocks technical blogs? Cut.  Stupid HR rules that require filling out a paper form once a month? Cut.  17" screen instead of a 24"? Cut.  Slow network, unstable email server, not enough hard drive space? Cut, cut, cut.  Sure, any given one of these isn't enough for someone to leave but put enough of them together and you've got one seriously unpleasant and ineffective environment to work in.

The steps are listed in order of importance.  Sure, you can start knocking off some of the low hanging fruit to make it easy to be good while you're putting the heat on the bad folks but you can't ignore step 1 and make it up by doing lots of step 2.  When a patient is diagnosed with cancer, the immediate focus is on eradicating the cancer not on adding lean muscle or lowering cholesterol.  Yes, the latter two can contribute to improved overall health by they simply don't matter if you don't take care of the most pressing need first.