Employee Termination Part 1
Today was by far the hardest day of work I’ve faced to date. After nearly a year of deliberation, I finally decided to dismiss Sarah. Sarah joined as our 2nd real employee just over 2 years ago. I shared an office with her for about 18 months, and I operated as her boss, mentor and friend.
As an employer, terminating an employee is a horrid experience, it is horrible when the employee is great, it is even difficult when the employee sucks. At the end of the day there is a personal relationship and a professional relationship that clash.
In hindsight it is easy to find red flags in the early days. Her resume listed a 3.8 “technical GPA” which was a way of showcasing her already decent, but not a 3.8 GPA. After her interview we went to a happy hour where we talked about job responsibilities and how her job would need someone to be super anal to which she responded she is not at all like.
So the initial blame goes way back to Tim and myself for overlooking key indicators. As Sarah was referred to us by one of my friends, I did feel really responsible for making sure she was a success. I set the goals high: “we want you to become the director of our websites within 3 years”. I was hoping I could coach her into this position.
A year went by and success was half baked. I felt as if every project was falling off when the going got tough. When there was work overload, I would step in and work to help get things back to normal. I genuinely felt that the workload might have been too much for her, but I was also suspicious that she may not have been working to her fullest.
Her work ethic was horrendous. Arriving to work sometimes at 10:30 AM, looking flustered. There was an excuse of the day nearly everyday. Long lunches, several times per week. Constant chats on instant message. I kept track of all of this and had a review with her at the end of December last year. I gave her a bad review — and I was an awful reviewer, I showed her this list of deficiencies and started reading a few out.
I realize that was a terrible way to coach someone. Sarah was extremely defensive and told me I shouldn’t hold these things back, I should tell them as I see them. I told her, “if I tell you not to be on chat during crunch time, and I see you then while away time playing a game on your phone, I’m going to be frustrated.” She said, “no you need to tell me these things, how else would I know?” I responded very sternly, “let me make it clear, this is the last time I’ll tell you about such expectations; I am not going to enumerate everything you shouldn’t be doing. At the end of the day if your job performance falls, I would be forgiving, but if the work ethic isn’t there, then I will blame that first”
I could have done a better job, but the general consensus of my friends was, “I can’t believe she talked back to you. if it was me I would have apologized and gotten my ass in gear.” I told Tim after the review, she has 30 days by the calendar – something I didn’t tell her. Low and behold, the next 30 days were amazing, work was getting done, projects completed on time.
Then several months passed and we started the beginning phases of projects again. I realized that if I was hands-off, projects would have the minimum done on them and would start to need a rescue in the late stages. I started implementing regular reviews with her, and had her come up with her own project schedule with weekly goals. Then I’d review those goals with her every 7-10 days. We set a benchmark date of what would happen before she took her annual trip to Korea; and what should happen after.
While all the goals weren’t met, I do believe she put in a strong effort to ensure she would not let the team down. I was proud of her, as she was finally starting to think about the company as her team.
After her return from Korea, we resumed this 6 week plan idea. This time, I decided I would not have as much oversight. Maybe check in once every few weeks instead of every week. Progress on projects started to slow. It seemed like if I didn’t pay attention to things no one would pay attention.
I genuinely wondered if it was due to projects being difficult or a lack of effort. The lateness resumed, long lunches resumed. I recognized Sarah was probably getting bored with her job. I started asking about what she would want to do with the new direction the company would take — she suggested marketing. I thought to myself to give her a chance, to dive in, try something.
Bottom line if she was hard working we would find a place for her, since she did after all prove herself before. A month went by, and not only was no initiative shown in any marketing type projects; the projects which could have been ahead of – or on schedule, had now fallen behind. Things I’d ask for on a Friday, I would not even see started until the following Thursday.
Client calls were being missed or juggled. When I gave feedback on something not going well, I’d get a very dismissive or defensive response. I felt that Sarah was not earning her job she was bored at, nor earning any future job with the company.
I still hadn’t told Tim my feelings or discoveries, I continued to find a way to shape her within the new company plan.
At this point, I met with Tim to talk about the company future — and quickly shifted the conversation to the future of Sarah. When I expressed I believed she was not showing enough initiative to take another job, he felt like it was best to let her go. I was upset and he reminded me, “look, I feel we are a family, I don’t want to see her leave either, maybe we can figure something out, or give her enough notice.”
I drew org chart after org chart, and finally found a position for her managing the onboarding and training of new product clients. I pitched it to Tim and successfully “saved” her job with the company.
Internally I felt like I was setting myself up for a bigger disaster. Sarah earned more than Marc but she worked maybe 1/2 has hard (I felt). If I made her in charge of new clients, it would mean she would be below Marc, but make more money — not a big deal, but when it came time for a promotion it would only be one person getting it. I felt like this was just going to get worse and worse.
As I talked to friends about it, I expressed my frustration that I wasn’t even sure if she was doing any work — or if she was just really bad at prioritizing. I decided to install a tool to capture information about what she does during the day. The tool was set to capture screenshots but blur it out — it would also capture the titles of the window names; finally it would track time on each activity. The intent was to get a general sense; not to violate her privacy. I told myself I’d only look at the data if performance collapsed and it justified me to.
About 3 weeks later, I took a vacation to Miami. There too this paradox caught me up and I shared my concerns with my host. My friend there simply yelled at me. Told me I was a huge idiot for letting her take me for a big ride. After about 3 hours, I agreed I was too emotional, and it was a bad business decision to keep Sarah. After all other employees probably noticed and would be themselves frustrated.
I got to the airport around 7 AM and decided a layoff was the best idea. Let her know the company is moving in a different direction and we wished her well. I thought 6 weeks of pay would be reasonable, it would be enough time to get her up on her feet passed the holidays. My friend thought I was a generous idiot.