To Fire or Not to Fire?

A new hire's performance is spotty and his pay is high. Should the boss let him go? In this thread, the question gets a thoughtful examination from all sides, including several different boss and worker perspectives. November 10, 2005

Almost a year ago I hired someone who was a project manager at another shop. He told me he could do it all and really pumped up his abilities. He knew this software and that software, he ran jobs that were worth 1000's of thousands of dollars, and etc. So I made him a fantastic offer of 50k a year, full coverage family health benefits, cell phone, flex hours, paid vacation. All in all his package is over 60k a year.

When he was hired we wrote his job description and responsibilities together. In fact I dictated to him exactly how he was supposed to do his job and he wrote it up. Well after this time I realize how much over he went on his abilities. He takes forever on drawings, he did not know the software package he said he did as well as he said he did. The paperwork still goes to the floors without all the information needed. Drawings have missing details, no moulding lists, and cut lists are missing.

His wife calls a gazillion times day. He has some past financial problems and creditors call the shop constantly. He is constantly on the computer instant messaging people and goofing off. He leaves early when I am not around and does not put any extra effort into his work unless I specifically ask him to do something. Now I like him. He is a real good guy and I want it to work out. I can see he has great potential if he just focused and did a little growing up and showed initiative.

I know he has potential because some times he has drawings done in a heartbeat. Other times I am on the road and not over his shoulders it seems like nothing gets done. It takes forever and when I get back to the shop to review I find a ton of mistakes and missing information and it all has to be fixed and reprinted to go to the floor.

When I hired him he was supposed to be able to do this on his own. But I am finding myself spending way too much time reviewing things. My guys on the floor constantly complain about the lack of full information being presented. And he does not show any initiative. I asked him to be more proactive, but it just is not happening.

How can I better manage the situation? I want to do everything I can to make it work out. Does anyone have any advice before I start to look for someone new. I am sure I can do things better. I try to hire people for life, but I am at my wits end and prepared to fire him if I canít make it work out.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor G:
Fire him, he has too many problems to be able to focus or stay motivated, and this will not change until he solves his personal financial problems if then. If you for some reason want to continue with him set quotas so there is an objective measurement of how he is doing and hold his feet to the fire.

From contributor F:

You pay him too much to put up with much of anything, much less the long list of problems you mentioned. Fire him today. Watch him as he collects his stuff so he doesn't take anything that doesn't belong to him. Change the locks on the doors. Iím surprised you where able to put up with him for that long.

From the original questioner:
Well I put up with it because it is better than I had before. I was doing drawings by hand and cut lists were done manually by whomever. Even though things are the way they are it saves me huge amounts of hours. It really is unbelievable how much time is saved. But that is compared to the manual way. I am sure it would even be more time for me and my guys if I got more output.

He is my first hire on the planning end. I have never had anyone else do drawings or anything so I have nothing to compare it to. I am looking for what I can do first before dropping the axe. I believe that it is almost always the captainís fault. I just want to do whatever I can so that if it doesnít work out at least I have all I need for the next guy. I also donít want to let him go before I find someone else. I have way to many things to do and I donít know the software at all and have no desire to. Finding someone experienced in particular software and who has experience in general will be difficult. Why do I put up with that crap? Good question. I just want to do everything on my end the best I can before I blame others.

From contributor J:
Here is a suggestion: you could place an ad for a replacement and make no secret about interviewing a replacement. If he bucks up and starts doing right you can keep him. Otherwise you have a good person lined up when you give him the axe.

From the original questioner:
Running an ad and interviewing is a great idea. I have to look out for my company's best interest. Hopefully it will light a fire under him. If not, the next candidate will step in.

From contributor B:
I've felt the sting of ungrateful and spoiled employees too. I'm no sage, but I have come to believe that you can't re-train attitude. Look under your own roof first, for the hard worker that is quietly making you money. Invest in training, cull for attitude. Sacrificing my best bench man to the office was the best decision I ever made.

From contributor M:
Get rid of him. There are good, capable employees out there that will help your business grow and prosper, no question. You don't need a project. Frankly, if the guy's been around a while, it comes down to character and you won't change that. You might see some short term changes but he'll slip back to old habits he's spent a lifetime repeating.

From contributor A:
Have you told him this? In all fairness I'd do that, but very firmly. At this point you're past negotiations. It's either pony up or leave. Sometimes blunt talk will wake someone up, if he's young. If not, have his severance check ready. If he changes, keep on eye open as he's likely to revert. Then you'll know the rest of the story.

From contributor H:
To the original questioner: Are you making money off of his work and is it enough to justify his wage? All of the other things that bug you are just that, things that bug you. Lets look at them one by one.

1) He doesn't seem to know the things that he said he knew. Without you actually knowing the software it would be difficult to say if he knows his way around the software or not. Cabinet software can be really tricky to run or it can be a piece of cake depending on what kind of job it is and how detailed you need to be.

2) Paper work still goes to the floor without all the information that it needs. I know that it seems really easy to get all the information that a job needs in order to be built. This is not always the case, especially when running multiple jobs at once. I also don't know what kind of information that he is not including. Is it information like what kind of wood species is this job or what material to make it out of? If so, these are easily answered questions and are not a big deal.

3) The instant messaging and wife calling has to go. End of story.

4) The guys on the floor constantly complain. So what, it has been my experience that their will always be tension between the guys on the floor and the guys in the office. The guys on the floor have a much less difficult job and usually don't realize it. They also know that the guy in the office makes a lot more money than they do which only adds to problem. The shop guys also see every mistake that the office guy makes and the shop guys mistakes end up in the garbage where sometime not even you know about them.

I know from personal experience that being a project manager is very difficult and is usually very under-appreciated. I would look at the big picture Ė and that is are you making money and not does he do some things that bug you.

From contributor G:
For 60k you can get a good guy. You are buying his mistakes and he will eventually bring you down with him via mistakes, bad mouthing you, stealing/losing customers, making you wear his hat as well as the rest of your work and basically make your shop uncompetitive. The longer you wait the harder it will be on you and him.

You might consider subbing the work our over the internet at least in the interim. I have done this in the past with some success. You should learn the software yourself so you can at least do the simple boxes. Also then you can create policy on how you want the work done and know how long it should take to do the work.

From contributor A:

My first reaction was like most of the others. Fire him. But since you say you like him and believe he has the potential to do good work, and since you want to do all you can before giving him the axe, you could re-negotiate the terms of his employment.

Change his status to that of an outside (1099) contractor hired on commission basis to produce all necessary drawings, documents, and shop notes. Give him some incentive by offering a generous commission, but note that incomplete and/or unsatisfactory drawings will be penalized substantially. Offer bonuses for on time or ahead of time completion. Since he will now be an outside contractor, you will allow him to rent your software and office space at a greatly reduced rate. Take away the cell phone you provided. That is his expense now. Allow him to buy in to your health benefit package if he chooses. If he wants to leave early, fine - as long as he is on schedule with the current project. If he isn't on time, penalize him for late completion.

Structure the pay scale so that after commissions, bonuses, etc., he basically earns what you are paying him now. But the opportunity is his to earn more or less. If he is as sharp as you think he is, he will be turning out drawings faster than ever before. And if he is really good, you could offer his services for hire to other cabinet shops and maybe make a penny or two off them.

From contributor V:
To the original questioner: If you really don't feel like getting rid of him (thatís what it sounds like), then I would suggest giving him an hourly wage to match his yearly salary base on a normal week. Then cut his hours by say 2 per day, but not his work load. He'll get it done because there will be no time to goof off. He can call his family on his breaks or lunch hours. They can't call him unless its an emergency. Tell his creditors when they call they are not to call him at work.

Advertise for a replacement. Be aware of what he is doing. Do not allow yourself to be held hostage by him attempting to make himself indispensable. You also need to be around more. Like you said when youíre there he can put out, but when youíre not he can't be trusted to maintain the same level of production. Didn't you check his references or ask for a list of previous employers? Itís not too late for that.

From contributor O:
To the original questioner: I admire your desire to work things out with this employee. I'm a bit disturbed by the number of posts advising to fire this person. Don't get me wrong, I am a huge advocate of cutting out dead wood, pardon the expression, and a firm believer that cancerous employees should be let go immediately. And this employee sounds cancerous to me, not like a good guy but a bad employee.

However, this situation could be managed in another way. And that is to adjust his compensation package to reflect his actual contribution. The problem is he is not performing to the level that is expected. Drop his pay, and let him know what he needs to do to get it back to where it is currently. He will either A) quit, B) work diligently to improve his performance, or C) not change anything and keep the same pay scale.

I think as employers we all need to take full responsibility for our employees. Their success or failure is determined by how well we assess their talents, give them guidance, and provide them a situation in which they can succeed. This is very difficult, though, and that is why good managers and leaders are so rare.

From contributor P:
To the original questioner: I went through a somewhat similar situation with a new cabinetmaker - nice guy, wife with post partum depression, new baby, etc. We did everything we could reasonably do to make his personal situation bearable, but he was still missing a lot of work. I sat him down, with my shop manager witnessing, and told him that he had to change his productivity or he would be fired. I told him that we had done what we were willing to do and that if he thought his life was hard now it would be a whole lot worse after I fired him. I also told him that if he changed his ways I would forget that I ever had this discussion, that in fact it would please me to no end to be able to forget that we needed to have this discussion.

I wasn't interested in hearing any excuses - I already knew all about the excuses and I didn't care because it was time to pull his act together and work the way he should. Then I didn't let him open his mouth, just sent him out the door. The turnaround was immediate, and I hope that he continues to perform well. The point that I am making is that your next step is to clearly lay out for your guy what is unsatisfactory and what has to change, and what will happen if it doesn't. After you have laid all of that on him you might then do the different compensation, but that seems to me to be pushing ongoing problems under the rug.

At the same time I would be looking around the shop for a guy who understands how to make your products and is interested in learning the software - start training him/her now. There are a lot of shop guys who only want to build boxes until they die, but then there are others who are looking for an opportunity to advance in the company. These people should be identified and encouraged, as they will be the foundation of the growth of your company. This whole situation sounds bad, but you are the leader and this is what leadership is all about - doing what has to be done.

From contributor T:
I have found that outside sources who are not familiar with what a draftsman does can feel sometimes that what to them seems so simple takes a long time and at other times what seems so difficult gets done amazingly fast. This I chalk up to just not understanding what a draftsman does. I have also found that the guys on the floor can get very spoiled by having someone else do all the thinking for them and that whatever a draftsman does for them will never be enough. I have seen more craftsman waste huge amounts of time just trying to find a mistake which really works out in the draftsman's favor but is not very productive.

I do not condone slacking and I offer no excuses for it regardless of who it is but I do find that just firing the person is a bit over reactive. People are people, not machines and that goes for everyone including the draftsman (project manager).

Re-evaluating the job description and the compensation sounds to me like a very good solution. As a draftsman myself I would find it a challenge to prove my worth to the company and in reality it is that worth that puts the money in my bank account.

From contributor F:
I was one of the first to say you should fire him, but this is what we do at my company: 30 and 85 day performance reviews. 6 month review is discretionary. After that it is a 12 month review. These are all formal written reviews. If he is up for a review, detail every complaint in writing, and the time period he has to fix it in, and what will occur if he fails to correct himself (drop in pay or dismissal). Of course, we can just let a person go without explanation within the 90 day probationary period. After that, there must be a written warning if the issues are not addressed in a performance review.

From contributor K:
To the original questioner: Here is a view from the other side of the issue. 20 years ago or so I was the employee you described. I was just going through a bad divorce, I had nothing to my name, I was living in a hovel, creditors and landlords were after me, etc. I did have an excellent job that paid pretty well working for an extremely high end cabinetmaker in a shop of about 15 or so, but I just couldn't keep my head in the game. Little mistakes became bigger mistakes when I tried to fix them. Nothing I did went well, everything was a struggle.

The owner was very sympathetic to my situation and gave me all the support he could. He could not have been nicer about everything, but eventually enough was enough. He called me into his office one day after I'd messed up an entertainment center and we had a long talk. Darn decent of him, I thought. We talked about me, we talked about business, we talked about production, etc. and finally he laid it on the line. He said: "If you can promise me you'll get it together, I'll keep you on. But if you don't think you can, tell me now and at least let me fire you so you can collect unemployment." I remember it like it was yesterday.

I had to think for a moment. I was tempted to tell him whatever would let me keep my job since I really needed the weekly paycheck, but in the end I couldn't look him in the eye and lie to him. He'd been so kind and up front with me that I just couldn't do it. I had to tell him that I just wasn't up to it anymore and that I wouldn't ask him to wait any longer. I did however let him fire me; the one and only job I've ever been fired from.

The moral is; skills can be learned, but you either have personal integrity or you don't. It sounds to me like your employee doesn't. That alone would be reason enough for me to dump him. The level of disrespect for your time and money by wasting it on the internet or talking to his wife on the phone a gazillion times day would infuriate me.