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Monday, November 23, 2009

Getting Stuck with a Problem

I am an executive director for a small company, and I report directly to the company president. The office hours for my company are 8 am to 5 pm, and every employee has to badge is and no one is required to badge out. All employees, exempt and non-exempt, enter their arrival and departure times into the company time-tracking system.

There is a director (Mr. X, we'll call him) who is a problematic performer. Among other things, he consistently arrives at the office 10-25 minutes late, and frequently much more than that. By consistent, I mean that his on-time percentage is 12% for the year to date - that means that he's arrived on time >10 days since the first working day of 2009. Traffic is not a problem - I live in the same general area as Mr. X, and I can get to work early or on time every single day under normal traffic conditions (it takes about 20 minutes).

Mr. X also frequently leaves early, particularly during the spring months, when he coaches his daughter's Little League team. On the occasions that he's stayed an hour late or worked through lunch, he's left early some other day that week and requested that he be given "comp" time for the extra hour or two that he worked (not recognizing that his late arrivals mean he's robbed the company of 1+ hours of time each week). Basically, whenever he works more than 40 hours a week, he wants additional compensation. This request is uniformly denied, but he can't seem to figure out that he's not entitled to special privileges, so he just keeps asking. I would note that there are many employees (exempt, of course) who routinely work 15 hour days, come into the office on Saturdays and Sundays and work through holidays. They don't get comp time either.

Because he's a director, in addition to a generous vacation allotment, he gets 80 hours a year of "management time" - which is intended to be used to cover portions of the work day when such an employee needs to be away from the office on personal business (taking a family member to the doctor, getting a car repaired, etc). This time is not intended to supplement vacation time. Of course, Mr. X has never applied this time to his late arrivals, and until he was threatened with termination earlier this year, he wouldn't apply it to the 30-60 mins of his frequent early departures. As of the end of June, Mr. X used up 75% of his management time allotment, because he was leaving early three times a week for 6 weeks.

Please note, I've not been tracking Mr. X's arrival time for my own "pleasure". After an incident this summer, when he "misreported" time - that is to say, lied - on his time sheet, I was asked to look at his entire on-time performance and PTO usage and provide a regular report to the President. That's how I happen to know the details of his badge in time and on-time performance - but all the other managers and directors know the guy show up late because there is a daily management call to catch up on operational and project issues that occurred overnight (we have offices in the middle and far east). The call is scheduled at a time that gives everyone who gets to work on time enough time to get a cup of coffee and go through email and open up the previous night's status reports, and is also comfortable for our overseas managers to participate (there are 8 and 14 hour time differences to deal with). Because Mr. X arrives either just as the call starts or is in progress, he has not had the chance to review any of the incoming emails and reports, so he is playing catch up, and because he's trying to read the emails while the call is on-going he's never on the same line, frequently asking everyone to backtrack, slow down or skip and come back. This slows down the progress of what is supposed to be a quick 15 minute meeting, frequently extending it by 10 minutes or more. Everyone else is prepared and is fully able to participate.

There are other issues with Mr. X's performance as well - he cannot make a decision for himself (which is my chief complaint, because he's a time sink - tying up personnel who need to do their own work). He constantly seeks confirmation of his point of view from other managers, and then he tries to create a wall of deniability in case his decision was not the correct one. He badgers mid-level staff for immediate responses to his inquiries but in turn ignores the requests of lower level staff, his peers and (in the case of my requests) his superiors. At one point, a client had started paperwork to terminate a contract because their interactions with Mr. X were such a problem. Work product that has gone to clients is often full of errors, both substantive and technical. Of course, Mr. X sees no deficiencies in his performance and has a greatly inflated view of his importance and the quality of his work product. But, at the end of the day, his work is just good enough to get by on, but only just.

So - why is this guy still here? I've never gotten a good answer on that. As I noted, he reports directly to the company president, who can't stand him - but for some reason refuses to terminate him. However, there is going to be an organizational restructuring in the very near term, and I fully expect that Mr. X will be transferred to my department - his function dovetails into areas I oversee. This will be interesting, since Mr. X has always seen me as a threat, and for some reason, doesn't understand that I am senior to him in the organization - in terms of authority, responsibility and impact. I let this slide, because - as I said, we're a small company and I've got to work with him on a daily basis, and it's not the culture of the company to pull rank.

These are my question:

1. When the transfer occurs, can I and should I do a full performance assessment with him (he would have already gotten an annual review for the prior year's work)?

2. If so, do I have to start from scratch, building up a file on his performance deficiencies only from the time he was transferred to my department, or can I use my prior observations and interactions.

3 . Regarding his abuse of time, since there is no requirement to badge out at the end of the day, can I require Mr. X to do so, in light of his habit of early departure? I should note that he parks away from the employee parking lot and does not use the employee entrance (he's the only one who does this), presumably so no one can see him enter and leave. He also refuses to shut down his computer and sign out of the company's IM program - so no one knows when he's out of the office. He is the only person who does this - when I was doing an investigation of the timesheet incident, I had to pull the server logs to see if I could ascertain departure times by when he logged off of the network.

In the past, when I've had to discuss the Mr. X problems with the company president, he (the president) has jokingly said that he'll make Mr. X report to me - and I've not-so-jokingly said that I'd fire the guy immediately.

What can I do?


Whew! I'm going to get on my soap box first and then answer your questions. It's my blog, so if I choose to do be all soap-boxish, I can.

Knock off the hour monitoring. Really. The 80 hours "management" time sounds awesome except when you realize that it's utterly ridiculous to require exempt employees to track when they take an hour off for a doctor's appointment. You should be managing your exempt employees on performance only. If they can get everything done in 25 hours a week, yippee for them. If they can do it while sitting on their living couch, wearing a bathrobe with Oprah playing in the background, then super-de-duper. Most people, of course, can't. (And if you have an exempt employee who can get it all done in 25 hours per week, dump some more work on that employee!)

You'll note that this guy has problems far beyond he's 20 minutes late to work every day. Duh. Because his problem isn't that he's late to work, his problem is that he's a terrible employee.

The problem with his late arrivals and early departures are that it affects the rest of the team. He's not prepared for the morning call. He can't be reached when he's coaching Little League. I know plenty of people who could coach Little League and have their work be completely unaffected.

And now to your specific problems.

First, I would sit down with the company president and say, "What is keeping you from firing Mr. X?"

If the answer is, "he's awfully annoying, but his work is stellar. He manages our biggest client who just loves him," well then you suck it up and understand that what you've got is a non-conventional worker. You work with Mr. X to come to an understanding of what he needs to soar and support him in that. Perhaps he gets a blackberry so he can check his e-mail in the morning while he's waiting for the school bus to pick up his daughters, which is why he's late every day.

If, more likely, the answer is, "he'll sue us!" Ask for what? Honestly. Discrimination against lazy people? He's has daughters in little league, so I'm guessing he might be over 40, which puts him in a protective class. However, even so, you can still fire someone in a protective class. You just can't fire them because they are in the protective class.

If you are afraid of lawsuits I see two options:

Option 1: Offer Mr. X a reasonable severance package. (3-6 months because he sounds fairly high level.) In exchange he signs a General Release, which means he agrees not to sue the company. You need to hire a labor & employment lawyer to help you with this. YOU CANNOT JUST WRITE UP A PIECE OF PAPER YOURSELF. Sorry, I should have used bold instead of all caps, but what is done is done.

If he doesn't sign, he's terminated anyway, but no cash. Wrongful termination lawsuits aren't usually the jackpot kind and attorneys won't take a case they don't think they can win. If your attorney feels like it's a low risk, it's a low risk.

Option 2: Get the company president to begin a termination procedure now. He sits down with Mr. X and says, "Your performance is not up to par." He then details the problems and presents Mr. X with a plan, no longer than 90 days.

This plan can include things like showing up for work on time and not leaving early, because those behaviors are contributing to problems with performance, not because I think you should be monitoring an exempt employee's hours.

Now, if your boss says he isn't firing Mr. X because "Mr. X has a family support" and "how could we be so cruel?" I'd point out that Mr. X is making a choice to behave in a way that could negatively affect his family and that there are many people out there who have the responsibility to support a family who would love Mr. X's job.

Now, if your boss won't buck up and fire the guy (or put him on the plan so that Mr. X can fix his problems), and the guy lands on your doorstep, then you begin with the performance plan. You can certainly start off with reference to his past behavior. In fact, you must start out that way.

You should sit down and go through all his expectations, what he needs to do to meet those, quantifiable plans to meet them and the clear understanding that he has a short time period to meet those or he'll be out on his ear. (You'll need the company president's support for that, so make sure he's willing to fire if Mr. X fails, because if not you'll have to come up with an alternative consequence.)

Good luck. You'll need it.

19 comments:

Inside the Philosophy Factory said...

I think it's important to emphasize that the problem isn't his hours, it's his performance. Period. He's not prepared for meetings, he's not doing his job making decisions etc. If he were in the office exactly when you expect him, but nothing else changed, would you want him to be on your team? I doubt it -- so, the problem isn't hours, it's performance.

Also, some people are really clueless -- they don't get the non-verbal cues of others and they don't see that their behavior is problematic. If you end up managing this person, you need to be very honest with him about the problems he's causing.

Interviewer said...

He's parking away from the building, sneaking in different ways, and not logging out. Then he has the gall to ask for extra credit when he does work "late." He knows exactly what he's doing wrong and I don't forsee a change. Instead, he's going to a lot of trouble to avoid it. In the end, he's only causing himself more problems.

I'd have the honest upfront conversation first with the company president (about why his performance hasn't led to termination up to now - this may give you some very enlightening information!). Then if he does transfer to your department, I'd meet with him. He may be exempt and EHRL is right in that you have to pay him no matter what he works each week, but you can still require arrival and departure on a schedule, adhering to the policy on breaks and lunches, etc. Let him know that your expectation is that he arrives prepared to work by x time each morning. I wouldn't tell him I was tracking the badge in time or server logs (unless he denies ever being late). I'd tell him that the higher ups have noticed his hours, and want him to set a better example for the rest of the company in both attendance and performance. Good luck!

Ask a Manager said...

This company sucks. Why on earth have they let this go on so long? I bet you have a wimpy CEO who doesn't like to fire people, and Mr. X is taking full advantage of it. This is outrageous.

Kerry said...

Holy crap. What a mess.

The person who pisses me off in this whole scenario the most is the CEO. You can totally see what's happening here: Mr. Craptastic reports to the CEO, who lacks the backbone to fire him. They're going to "reorg" so that Mr. Craptastic reports to YOU, so that YOU can be the bad guy and fire him. Then the CEO's hands are clean. He knows you're do it, because you've told him so. What a weenie.

Fine. Dude needs to be fired, so you're going to end up doing that. But please...consider working some place not quite so pathetic. You can do better (although you do have to give up the whole "hours" thing...the performance is the point, not the hours).

Sharecropper said...

Sounds like performance and attendance expectations have never been set for this guy. The President obviously had issues holding people accountable. I would begin by setting aggreable expectations and then holding him accountable. If he has to come in late due to child/school issues, thats ok as long as he is prepared for the morning call, whatever that takes. Approve in advance any leave early/arrive late scenarios, that way you know when someone asks. Schedule weekly one-on-ones to review commitment

Keith DeLong said...

I completely agree on the focus of your response. The issue is a poor performing employee and management (CEO) responsibility to implement policy that promotes accountability and preserves employee morale.

I especially appreciate the initial encouragement to knock off the hour monitoring. We publish time clock software and have this conversation with prospective and new customers nearly every week. Employee time and attendance systems are a mechanism to bring accountability to existing policy, not a solution to expose bad employees or, worse, a replacement for lack of policy. I appreciate the post and look forward to pointing our users to your words of wisdom!

Ceecee said...

“Now, if your boss says he isn't firing Mr. X because "Mr. X has a family support"... I'd point out that Mr. X is making a choice to behave in a way that could negatively affect his family and that there are many people out there who have the responsibility to support a family who would love Mr. X's job.”

I just have to say, EHRL, thank you! I’ve been saying this for years. My husband’s stuck with a totally incompetent employee (seriously, a shaved chimp could do better work) because upper management used the “family man” excuse instead of firing his stupid butt.

Employers, why are you still protecting your crappiest workers? In this economy, you could find a dozen unemployed candidates tomorrow (including me) who’d do a better job at a lower salary!

Swine Flu at Work said...

Employers, why are you still protecting your crappiest workers? In this economy, you could find a dozen unemployed candidates tomorrow (including me) who’d do a better job at a lower salary!

AMEN! I have dealt with this in my work and my husband is dealing with it too. Our inside joke (since we both worked for the same Fortune 500 at one point) is 'you'd have to kill a co-worker to even be considered for termination and even then they probably wouldn't fire you'.

There are a lot of wimpy managers out there.

M

HR Godess said...

This is a classic case of conflict avoidance. Sometimes the best managers are not at the top! What EHRL said is dead on. And the CEO should be addressing this himself. Since he won't, it most likely will go to you. Focus on his performance and the attendance will become secondary. If he's not doing his job at all, him being present for 8+ hours a day won't make a difference.

Good Luck!

Bob Hall said...

Makes me wonder if "Mr. X" has something on the CEO...stranger things have happened.

More than likely, it is as every other commenter has said...a conflict avoider in the CEO position. I'd hate to be in your position because when you get everything lined up to fire this guy, you could find that "Mr. X" runs to the CEO and then you get the rug pulled out from under you. I've seen it happen. Still, you've got to try.

I echo the sentiment of so many: "Good luck!"

Kingsley Tagbo said...

Is there any way you could prevent Mr. X from being transferred to your department? It looks like your life may be miserable and your work may suffer seriously from having to work closely with him.

class-factotum said...

In this economy, you could find a dozen unemployed candidates tomorrow (including me) who’d do a better job at a lower salary!

In your cover letter, leave out that "lower salary" part. :)

Anonymous said...

I worked closely with a Ms X. While her behavior was annoying and the lenience she enjoyed seemed unfair, she seemed honestly certain that she was freely granted this "flexibility" because of the trust she'd built over many years. She was reorganized under a new manager, warned one day, and fired the next.

As a coworker I feel really ambivalent about this. The behavior shouldn't have been tolerated so long, but the sudden firing makes me wonder if there's something about my behavior that I'm not aware needs attention, and I won't know until I'm abruptly fired for it. Skipping over the coaching steps that should have been done long ago doesn't necessarily send the right message to those who remain. Two wrongs don't make a right.

Ceecee said...

@Anonymous above: You said your Ms. X didn’t receive the coaching she deserved. Was she inexcusably tardy two days in a row? If I had a “final warning” discussion with an employee about tardiness stating clearly that she will be fired for the next offense, and she strolls in late the next day without so much as a “bad traffic” excuse, I’d have her signing her walking papers before she could remove her coat. Anything less disrespects the other 99% of the staff that actually shows up on time. And my hardworking employees deserve more respect than someone who so blatantly disregards a final warning.

Coaching should be akin to mentoring, helping someone who recognizes that they’re struggling and is making an obvious effort to improve. Someone who continues her unacceptable behavior without the slightest effort to change or even an acknowledgement that the problem is real deserves discipline, not coaching. I’ve seen employees use the coaching period to delay real punishment for their actions, while never using the coaching to improve themselves. Meanwhile, coworkers watch the bad employee “getting away with it” for so long that when she’s finally fired, it seems so sudden and random that everyone becomes paranoid.

commoncents said...

Great post! I really like your blog!!
Common Cents

http://www.commoncts.blogspot.com

ps. Link Exchange?

Marsha Keeffer said...

I had thoughts like Bob and wondered if there isn't some skeleton in the closet that prevents the CEO from manning up on this.

It all focuses around whether or not there's the will to terminate. If so, that's one path. Otherwise, you're pretty much stuck.

Jane said...

A different co-worker view here--it's really demoralizing to those who have to work with Mr. X and who are putting in real labor--some of it, undoubtedly, cleaning up Mr. X's mess--to see that slackers are tolerated to this extent--basically, his indulgence is coming at the expense of his coworkers' morale. By all means make sure he has clear quantifiable expectations to meet, but if there's no followup when he fails to meet them, it's not just his supervisor who's getting cheated.

Anonymous said...

Maybe you need to check your benefit plan-

Ask A Manager's famous statement-
'Our benefit package includes never having to work with a jerk' should apply.

As Jane points out, the shareholders are losing money due to the lowered staff morale and the inevitable decreased productivity of the entire office.

Too bad if it ends up on your desk, but either the company is focused on excellence or it's not. If it isn't, why is your career tied to mediocrity?

Lois Gory

Anonymous said...

A different co-worker view here--it's really demoralizing to those who have to work with Mr. X and who are putting in real labor--some of it, undoubtedly, cleaning up Mr. X's mess--to see that slackers are tolerated to this extent--basically, his indulgence is coming at the expense of his coworkers' morale. By all means make sure he has clear quantifiable expectations to meet, but if there's no followup when he fails to meet them, it's not just his supervisor who's getting cheated.

I agree. I've left two comfortable jobs that I was otherwise very happy at because it was so demoralizing to see a colleague do nothing, take 2-hour lunches on release days, and steal credit for my bug fixes. Irrational? Maybe, but that's human nature so companies should understand that tolerating shirkers creates the possibility of losing their productive ones.