Jeremy, an IT manager at a nonprofit, has an employee he really likes. Let’s call this employee Franklin.
Everybody likes Franklin. He's charming. He's funny. He writes killer postings for the company's blog.
Franklin is also very apologetic about his shortcomings, which are... well, let's just say they're extraordinarily frustrating for a manager. Truly, Franklin is emblematic of the stickiest wicket for the IT manager: He's incompetent in some areas, but not all, and he's just not flagrantly incompetent enough to make his firing a no-brainer.
And let's face it: Barring managers who happen to be psychopaths, most managers' most dreaded task is to fire someone. That's particularly true when we're talking about an employee whose work simply shines in some arenas and whom even the CEO loves to have around. The question boils down to this: Who pays for the lackluster facets of this employee's performance? Who suffers from an employee who needs this amount of hand-holding?
The manager suffers, that's who. Jeremy suffers. I could hear it in his voice when I interviewed him for this case study: He sounded like he was at the end of his rope. It's this type of situation that makes an IT manager wonder whether he might be better off doing something less stressful—say, air traffic control, or perhaps telemarketing. There don't seem to be any good options: Either you fire the guy everybody loves and whom you consider a friend, or you continue covering his ass. And how do you know which is the right decision?
Today, we're here to help Jeremy, and hopefully it will give us insight into handling other problem employees. In this article, I give you the dope on Franklin, a real, live employee with a real, live pseudonym whose work is below par. I feed you the data, and I let you decide whether Jeremy should fire him or not. At the end of the article, I reveal Franklin's actual fate.
You won't be making the decision alone. As you read along, you can compare your decision with responses I culled from 11 IT professionals and managers who weighed in on Jeremy's predicament.
Now, please permit me to introduce you to Franklin.
Franklin, Our Charming Spaz of a Problem Employee
First off, let's make it clear: Jeremy did not hire Franklin. Rather, he inherited Franklin.
Franklin has worked part-time for the nonprofit for 10 years. For five of those years he's reported to his boss, Jeremy. His duties encompass two roles: Franklin handles administrative functionality with the database, including invoices, purchase orders, vendor support, and phone issues. His second role is to write for the organization’s blog.
When I asked Jeremy how Franklin's previous manager dealt with this problem employee, Jeremy had to admit that he didn't actually get any input from the manager—mostly because the man had a nervous breakdown and just didn't show up one day.
At the time, Jeremy and Franklin were at a similar level of responsibility. Jeremy inherited the role of manager, and for staff he inherited Franklin, with whom he had already bonded to a certain extent. There's nothing like working for bad management to forge strong bonds, after all.
"It’s not like I can look to [Franklin's previous manager] to see how he did," Jeremy said. "It was worse with him [than with Franklin]. He had issues. That guy had issues. And he made it so much more difficult for people who worked for him. You were constantly picking up his issues. He missed more work than [Franklin] does."
Because that is, in fact, one of the problems of this problem employee: Franklin misses work. Here's a cheat sheet of Franklin's shortcomings:
- Franklin lacks technology training, which makes him unfit to handle the technical aspects of his job.
He's "not a real IT guy," Jeremy notes; rather, he's an aspiring actor, and acting is extremely important to him. His life goal is not to work on a database. Jeremy's "completely respectful of that," he said, given that "a bunch of people here have a second life—another job they work on and that they hope to be successful in."
If it was only his lack of passion for technology, it would be a little easier, Jeremy said. But it’s not just his lack of interest; it’s Franklin's cumulative lifestyle or some other challenge he has, whether it’s ADD or that he just can’t pull it together on some days. What that looks like on a typical day is if, say, the server glitches, Franklin comes running to Jeremy for help, since he has no server training. Unfortunately, as the department has grown over time (Jeremy now manages a staff of five), the technology part of Franklin's dual roles has grown as well.
- Franklin misses deadlines.
- He's often late.
- He misses work.
He constantly has to adjust his part-time schedule because he's got other stuff going on, such as auditions. "If he’s scheduled to come in Monday-Wednesday-Friday, but he gets up Monday morning and can’t come in, he’ll try to reschedule [his shift] for later in the week," Jeremy said. "But whatever he has scheduled that day won't get done." Sometimes he's not even responsible enough to say he's not coming in.
- The administrative work is anathema to Franklin.
He doesn't get invoices in on time, for example. It's not that he isn't good at invoicing and the other administrative tasks. Franklin actually has something of an OCD side to him, Jeremy said, which makes him good at administrative/support work. But such tasks tend to take him longer than they should.
- Franklin's most pressing issue is he needs to know there’s someone to turn to when he has issues, problems, or questions.
"Sometimes he gets stuck and just needs someone to tell him it’s OK," Jeremy said. "He’s not in this to climb the ladder or to make decisions. He just wants to try to fix an issue, but he doesn’t always know what the fix is." In other words, he needs a lot of handholding.
Those are his minuses. It would be easy to fire him if he didn't have a list of pluses. Here's the counterbalancing cheat sheet:
- Franklin does a killer job at blog writing.
Regardless of the problems he has with showing up on time or getting the administrative tasks taken care of in a timely manner, he takes the blog seriously, remoting in from home if he has to in order to ensure the posts are on time and perfect.
The same OCD tendencies that get Franklin hung up on administrative database work also motivate him to obsess over the blog. "He can sit and look at a blog posting for 20, 30 minutes after he's finished, to make sure the photo should go above or below a paragraph, for example," Jeremy said. "That’s part of the struggle: he’s good at things. He's just not comfortable doing them. He's so worried about making mistakes, he's unable to finish a job until he can say OK, this is OK."
- Franklin is aware of his faults and extremely concerned that his behavior is adversely affecting Jeremy. "Even if he’s not committed to the job, I do believe he’s somewhat committed to me and to not letting me down," Jeremy said.
- Franklin is utterly charming and "universally loved" in the organization. "Everybody loves him," Jeremy said. "Not just 'sort of likes' him. Literally, you ask every single person. Even some senior staff just adore him."
- As mentioned in the "minus" list, Franklin is good at what he does, including the administrative work. It's just that it takes him a looooooong time to get things done.
In sum, Franklin is, Jeremy estimates, about 40% competent, about 40% of the time, and is 100% lovable. Jeremy is at his wit's end. He's asking for your help. You're the manager who decides if Franklin should stay or go. What would you do? Here are your options:
- Fire Franklin. He's an at-will employee, and you can probably find someone else, albeit less lovable, to do a better job.
- Document his inadequacies, and then fire him.
- Figure out how to lay him off.
- Sigh, and continue on with life. Not everyone who works for you can be the best.
- Call the human resources department. Let them deal with Franklin.
- Something else. What?
Choose your answer before you continue.
Survey Says: Franklin Should Be Spared the Ax, Unleashed on the Blogosphere
Franklin has been spared. The managers and IT bosses who responded to the quiz overwhelmingly voted for the "something else" option, and those same 73% of respondents were united in what that something else should be: Keep Franklin scribbling for the blog and release him from the database work that makes him miserable. (I'll tell you Franklin's actual fate at the end.)
Out of 11 responses, eight professionals opted to encourage Franklin to keep doing the creative work that makes him shine and to hire another part-timer to handle the database.
Only two respondents opted to can Franklin on the basis of nonperformance. "There's a common misconception that 'nonprofit' organizations are less demanding of employees, and more tolerant of marginal performance," noted Bill Horne, owner of William Warren Consulting, a telecommunications consultancy. "In fact, the opposite is true: Nonprofits have to make do with less money, older equipment, and 'RTFM' training programs. Managers at nonprofits have to demand more of their employees, and that includes those who have developmental delays or learning disabilities. If an employee was not pulling his weight, I would drop the hammer."
For his part, Dave Jacobs, a principal at TechKnowledge Consulting, agreed that a small nonprofit can't afford to have two people doing the job of one. "Given the economy, chances are he could be replaced with someone who wants the job and has greater skills," Jacobs said.
But like most respondents, Jacobs was concerned about whether Franklin had been sufficiently warned regarding doing the entire job (not just the parts he enjoys doing), that he understands that communicating and showing up are a condition of employment, and that he's been given appropriate database training. If he's been given all that and nothing has changed, "I'd fire him," Jacobs said.
Still, Jacobs agrees with the 73% when it comes to the blog. "If he's really good at the blog and is a struggling actor, maybe he can be a contributor to the blog and be paid by the article, but that's the ancillary part of the job," he said.
Larry Guerrera is an IT manager who's dealt with similar problem employees. He's a strong proponent of not firing Franklin and instead turning the blog into his prime focus. "Since he excels in that area, that's where he should be," Guerrera said.
As for the administrative issues, Jeremy needs "to step up to the plate and find a way to get someone else to handle the other stuff," Guerrera said. "This is a situation that will not get better by itself as shown by the various attempts to get Franklin on the right path. Not happening! Even though they are friends, Jeremy has a responsibility to his position and the non-profit he works for. Get someone else to handle the things that Franklin falls down on. This scenario is a never-ending circle of frustration for both parties. Jeremy is the one that needs to break this cycle, and the sooner, the better."
All well and good. Many echoed Guerrera's sentiments.
There was one glaring issue that stopped many respondents in their tracks, though: namely, the mere possibility that Franklin may have ADD or OCD.
The Dangers of Casually Diagnosing ADD, Aspberger's, or OCD
"It's a well-documented fact that IT attracts employees with many kinds of OCD and ADD-like issues, and managing those people is a fact of life," said Andrew Marshall, who runs an HR consultancy and has been in technology and management for more than 30 years.
During my interview with Jeremy, it was I who threw out the possibility that Franklin sounds like he may have ADD. Jeremy agreed that it was a possibility.
Respondents made clear that this casual approach was a dangerous one, given the possibility of a fired employee bringing charges that he hadn't been afforded appropriate accommodation for a disability.
The questions Marshall and others had for me and Jeremy:
- Has Franklin been formally diagnosed with OCD or ADD, or similar?
- If yes, has a request been made for any accommodation to be made, and if so, what?
"From the HR perspective, you would be on thin ice firing Franklin if the answer to these questions is yes," Marshall said. "Even if he has not been formally diagnosed, you would have to be concerned that if fired he may subsequently be [diagnosed]. You would have to be squeaky clean on policies, acknowledgement of policies, and breach of policies."
What, exactly, constitutes a diagnosis? I asked Marshall. It's "highly tricky," he said. If Jeremy has ever been told, casually in a social setting or otherwise, that Franklin might be afflicted, or if there are any e-mail messages, texts, memos or documents that may allude to it, or if it's ever been mentioned or even suspected in any way, the issue turns into a grey area, Marshall said.
"If arbitration or a lawsuit were to ensue, grey areas can quickly become black and white in the employee's favor," he said. "Of course, for that to be an issue, Franklin would need to file a case, which he may or may not do. In any event, ending employment would need to be for entirely different, well-founded, clear-cut and documented reasons."
Managing people with any of these conditions requires care and consideration, he noted. As Franklin's performance indicates, OCD sufferers can be meticulous workers. It does, however, take some effort to find a role that both helps the company and helps the employee by keeping him in his comfort zone, Marshall pointed out.
Franklin's Actual Fate
Franklin has been spared and is still working at the nonprofit. I checked with Jeremy on the OCD/ADD diagnosis, and he confirmed what I had suspected: Franklin has not been formally diagnosed, to Jeremy's knowledge.
Franklin has, in fact, received training for the areas in which he has difficulty, such as server management. The tech training hasn't gone particularly well, Jeremy said, but as far as handling phones, the help desk, troubleshooting, invoices, budgets, and the blog, it has made a difference.
I asked Jeremy the question our IT managers presented: Can the workplace accommodate a workload change without disadvantaging the business, providing a role that leverages Franklin's strengths? Specifically, can Jeremy switch Franklin's responsibilities so he's just working on the blog?
"Honestly, I think that is the best solution and have been pushing him (and my bosses) in that direction," Jeremy replied. "Hopefully, it will work out that way."
I also wondered if it would be possible to hire a part-timer just to handle the database, given the IT department's growth. That is in fact exactly what's happened: The nonprofit recently hired a new person and added database responsibilities to that role so that they can take most of the onus for the database away from Franklin.
In this scenario, I wasn't worried about Franklin as much as I was about Jeremy. Franklin's advantage has always been that very few people have seen the things he struggles with. You know databases: They're pretty much behind the scenes. Franklin's advantage has been a problem for Jeremy, though, since he's the one who has to deal with his charming employee's deficiencies.
Things are obviously looking up for Franklin. He's always had a concerned, progressive, humane, kind boss in Jeremy, and now he'll hopefully be moved ever further into the work he's good at and away from the work that makes him stumble. Now, with less stress and chance for Franklin to fumble, Jeremy's stress level will likely ease, as well.
Thank you to those who weighed in on the situation. May you all, and may we all, be treated with the same level of compassion with which Franklin was graced at your hands and at the hands of his nurturing boss.
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