I recently had to let someone go with very short notice and it’s not something I’m particularly comfortable with. The experience has left me with a few restless nights and I’ve been thinking in detail about what I could have done differently.
I employed a temp on contract to cover my role whilst on a 6 month secondment. I needed to find someone at relatively short notice that would be able to do my job proficiently, manage a team and deliver services to the standards that customers and stakeholders expect; allowing me to get on with my new role of being the CEO’s right-hand man.
It didn’t go according to plan…
Within 3 months, the temp appointment had alienated the team, lost the trust of senior managers and delivered work far below expected quality. Eventually, what I thought would be ‘just a difficult period of bedding in’ rapidly started to create potentially long-term damage to motivation, quality of service and perceptions of the team.
I’ll highlight some of my most serious concerns:
- Loss of trust in competence – Several stakeholders requested I exclude the temporary manager from key projects and asked me to return. Considering the demands of my new role, finding the time to do this impacted on both my output for the CEO and the projects I had supposedly left behind.
- Attitude to authority figures (including me) was absolutely terrible. Bad-mouthing and using derogatory and undermining language about senior managers in front of the team.
- Dismissing and criticising the work carried out by the team led to losing the trust and respect of those he had to manage. I admit that I also criticise the work of certain team-members occasionally, but there are ways of doing this to build and improve.
- Constant negativity and undermining – There was a standard response to any ideas or decisions: a shake of the head and pulling a face like he’d just sucked a lemon.
This would occur whenever anyone made a decision or made a suggestion, as if to say ‘that will never work/that’s a terrible idea that will fail, I know a better way’. This occurred even in meetings with key stakeholders, and those that trusted and relied upon the advice of me and the team, undermining credibility.
- Complaints about lack of resources was a constant – Granted this was his first experience of working in the public sector, but this is reality, we can’t just magic taxpayer money out of thin air. Besides, I’d managed that service for 3 years and always hit objectives and set best practice with even less resources, delivering quality by being innovative and creative.
- Quality of reports were terrible – Local government is bureaucratic, but governance is tight and you have to demonstrate progress and value for money. Those in positions of authority have to make difficult decisions with tight resources. You have to provide the information they require, not poorly written reports with a dismissive attitude.
- Accusation of bullying – The worst yet, a junior and inexperienced team member started a grievance procedure against the temporary manager for bullying, causing stress and ill-health. In my view starting a relationship with: “what f**king good are you, then?” and later adding: “if this was the private sector, I would have fired you by now” isn’t the way to establish the foundations of a good working relationship.
How did I manage the situation?
At first, I attempted to manage the situation behind the scenes, speaking to people, covering over the cracks, talking to the temporary manager about some (but not perhaps all) the issues, encouraging him to change his approach.
In the end, with these problems taking up increasing amount of time and with so many concerns, I had to act. Perhaps not as quickly as some people wanted though.
I pulled together as much information as I could, talked to all members of the team, and then to stakeholders that didn’t want to work with him. I satisfied myself that he had been sufficiently warned and should know better and that the situation could not be rectified without a great deal of work. I sought legal and HR advice about removing him at no-notice and then made my decision.
I went into his office at lunch time, told him the bad news and gave him half an hour to gather his things. That gave me enough time to discuss this with the team and then escort him from the building.
That might sound draconian but I couldn’t risk access to the confidential, restricted and commercially sensitive information with someone who is likely to be in a really bad mood.
Which he was… He attempted to lay blame on me, the team and everyone else. I didn’t give him much quarter, explaining that I had made my decision and that it wouldn’t be changed. The penny really dropped when I told him I was going to explain this to the team; there was no way back from that.
Why did it happen?
Primary blame has to lie with me.
As the service manager I have to take responsibility for this going so badly. I employed him and I didn’t manage him appropriately. Perhaps I wasn’t clear enough on my expectations and perhaps I should have realised that the private sector is a very different beast to local government.
It didn’t help that my hands were partly tied in deciding who should do the role; bringing in an external manager was not my first, or even my second preference. Demands from our key customer for a marquee replacement really narrowed the options. This individual came with excellent credentials and a high-flying resume that could turn heads. His CV was enough to make our more demanding primary customers pleased at the appointment. Lesson learnt: you can’t trust a CV.
But lets also cut the bullshit: a huge chunk of the blame should lie with him. I don’t care who you are, or what you’ve achieved in the past, you do not treat staff in a dismissive and abusive way or bad mouth senior managers and stakeholders in the way that he did.
How do I feel about all of this?
Uncomfortable, if I’m honest; it’s led to several restless nights. I see this as my own failure to hire the right person. I feel duped by the proposition and frustrated that I couldn’t do what I felt best because of one particularly influential stakeholder.
I’m uncomfortable that I had to fire someone, to tell someone they are unwanted and pull the financial rug from under their feet.
I had to act coldly and efficiently. I have a very collaborative management style; I like to motivate, develop and work with my team, giving them opportunities for success and to build on their experiences. In this case I couldn’t. I’m not comfortable being cold, but the training I received on dealing with difficult people greatly helped in preparing for it.
How could I have dealt with it differently?
In hindsight, I could have done many things differently, but I’m not sure if I could have or should have done different considering the information I had available at the time.
Perhaps I should have cracked down harder on his management behaviours that I felt conflicted with established practices; been firmer rather than giving space for him to find his feet.
Perhaps I could have been less naive about his resume. Some of his comments and answers during our first interview did lead me to question some of his abilities and accuracy of some of his apparent statement of achievements. In hindsight, the quality of his CV and his reputation had probably swayed my opinion and caused me to look at the potential benefits more favourably than I should have done.
I was probably also in too much of a rush to recruit someone. I was already in the new role and trying to do both jobs at the same time, causing stress and overwork and impacting on the quality of work I could deliver.
Perhaps I should have prepared more detailed handover notes, and stated clearer expectations rather than expecting him to understand what needed to be done and how. He came in guns blazing, damaging carefully constructed relationships and kicking morale hard; ignoring what he saw as unimportant and focusing on what he was more conformable with.
There are always unforeseen problems and benefits from every situation. The trick is being able to see the silver lining and capitalise on it.
The situation has helped cement my reputation as a good people and process manager, able to cajole challenging and headstrong individuals into delivering high quality work – mainly because I could do this, when this ‘highly rated’ individual couldn’t.
It may also help demonstrate that I am willing and able to make the hard decisions and be ruthless when needed.
Teamwork does appear to have improved, perhaps as a result of having a common enemy.
A chance to try again
So I’m back to square one doing two jobs again and I’m seeking to recruit a more suitable appointment. This time I’ll be more thorough and provide greater scrutiny. I may even have to push back harder against our demanding customer to recruit the most able appointment rather than someone with just a flashy CV. Within a few weeks I intend to have this pretty squared away.