Personal note: I wrote the bulk of this material in February 2011. I recently left a job (from which I was not fired) and admit the timing is less than perfect. There’s no connection between this essay and my personal situation, although its insights are derived from dozens of observations over the past 6 years.
I’m writing this post for a political purpose, not a personal one. Namely, I wish to provoke an epic showdown between the cognitive “1 percent” and the socioeconomic “1 percent”– a pleasant euphemism in the latter case, since it’s really 0.1% of Americans who are in access to make major decisions. I wish to force this conflict as fast as I can I believe technological trends are in our favor and we will win. It is not enough to defeat the socioeconomic “(0.)1 percent” as a class or as individuals. It is far more important that we dismantle the ugly world that they have created. If we destroy them personally but not the execrable processes they’ve set in motion, others will step up to replace each one we remove from power. We need to change the processes, which involves changing the discussion. Radical transparency is the first step toward doing this.
I’m going to shed some light on the processes by which people are separated from companies. Involuntary termination. Layoffs. Getting fired. Shit-canned. Pink-slipped. There’s obviously a lot of nastiness surrounding this function, despite its absolute necessity to the health of an organization. I don’t intend to say that firing people is mean, or wrong, or unethical. Far from it, it’s something that all organizations will need to do from time to time. Some people are frankly toxic or unethical, and others are just not able to perform well within the organization, and must be let go.
In fact, I’d argue that the results of what happens when incompetent people are rarely fired can be seen in U.S. politics, where we face one of the most disastrously ineffective legislatures in human history because voters are so bad at firing idiots. Political officials are subjected to periodic elections (360-degree performance reviews) which are supposed to be intensely competitive. Yet the incumbent-victory rate is astonishingly high: over 95 percent in American political elections. The job-loss rate of political officials is less than 2 percent per year, despite their poor performance. In finance and technology, even people who are extremely good at their jobs have higher risk of involuntary termination than that. That contrast, I consider illustrative. For reasons like this, I will never say it is wrong to fire people, although it’s important to be decent about it. More on that later.
Two years ago, one of my friends was served with a Performance Improvement Plan (PIP) issued to him from a large company. If there is a TPS Report Museum, there must be an entire wing dedicated to PIPs. I’ll say one thing about these: they should never be used, and they don’t work. The first way in which PIPs fail is that they don’t work at improving performance. A manager who genuinely wishes to improve an employee’s performance will address the matter, one-on-one, with the employee in a verbal meeting (or series of meetings) where the intention is discovering the cause (“blocker”) of low performance, and decide either (a) to resolve this problem, if it can be done, (b) to accept transient low performance if the cause is a temporary one such as a health problem, or (c) to determine that the problem is irresolvable and terminate the employee (preferably in a decent way). On the other hand, written negative communication about performance (formalized most finally in a PIP) is universally interpreted as an aggressive move and will lead to distrust of the manager, if not outright contempt toward him. As soon as a manager is “documenting” negative performance, the relationship between him and his report has failed and he should progress immediately to a decent termination. Never PIP. Fire, but do it right.
What’s a decent termination? It’s one in which the employee is allowed to resign, provided with a positive reference (both in writing, to guarantee it, and verbally when needed) and a severance package equal to between 1 and 1.5 times the average duration of a typical search for jobs of that kind (between 2 and 3 months for junior-level positions, and 6 to 9 months for executives, and with an additional multiplier to 1.5-2 granted to those who are “overexperienced”) to compensate the employee for the unexpected job search. Of course, companies have no legal obligation to any of this, but it’s the right way of doing things. In fact, because financial pressures can result in a suboptimal job search, I’d argue that severance (when the cause issue is fit or performance rather than unethical behavior) is an ethical obligation.
Speaking of this, a lot of extremely unethical things happen in American workplaces, and that is a result not of “bad people”, but the bulk of this behavior comes from morally-average people who are scared. One of the things people fear most at work is a sudden, unjust, badly-structured termination that leads to a long-term career problem. This fear motivates a lot of the bad activities that occur in workplaces that lead to unsafe products and defrauded customers. The best thing a company can do for its culture, and for its macroscopically visible good citizenship, is to establish a policy of managing terminations in a proper way– to say that, yes, we’ll fire people whose poor performance constitutes an unacceptable cost to us, but we’ll always do so in a way that ensures that good-faith low performers (i.e. decent people who are a bad fit for their role) move on to more appropriate jobs.
How does a PIP actually affect performance? First, it destroys the relationship between the manager and the employee, who now feels “sold out”. If claims in the PIP suggest that others contributed to it, it may destroy the working relationship between the employee and his colleagues, causing isolation. PIPs usually carry a biased or even inaccurate summary of the employee’s work as the motivation for the Plan. Second, PIPs often generate a lot of additional work for the employee, making it harder to perform. A PIP usually contains deadlines equivalent to a 40-hour per week work schedule. This seems reasonable, except for the fact that many work demands are unplanned. An employee who faces responsibility for an emergent production crisis during a PIP will be forced to choose between the PIP work or the emergent crisis. A PIP’d employee ends up actually ends up with four conflicting jobs. The first is the work outlined in the PIP, which is already a 40-hour obligation. The second is any emergent work that occurs during the PIP period (which is usually unspecified in the PIP, but claimed to be covered by a vague “catch-all” clause). The third is the legalistic fighting of the PIP– the employee must contest false claims about his performance or the company will represent him as having agreed with them, which damages his position if he ends up in severance negotation. The fourth is the job search process, which must be commenced right away because the PIP usually ends in termination without severance.
This brings us to the real purpose of PIPs, which is to legally justify cold-firing employees. The PIP is the severance package. Defenders of PIPs represent it as cheaper (and it’s not, because of contagious morale effects) to keep a burned-out, miserable employee in the office for a month or two than to fire him and pay a 3-month severance package. Employees who are terminated under a PIP are usually granted no severance, because their termination is “for cause”. There’s a lot of intimidation that usually goes on here. Because the PIP is confidential, employees are usually told they will be breaking the law if they show the PIP to anyone, even an attorney. (Not true.) They’re also told that they can be terminated “for cause” (read: without severance) and that it will damage their ability to get a reference if they don’t sign the PIP, damaging their ability to contest it later. This one is true (employment is at will, and severance is not a legal obligation) but a company that gives a bad reference, especially for retaliatory reasons, will not fare well in court.
I was once privy to managerial statistics at a large company. Over a 12-month window during a time of average job fluidity, 82 out of 100 of PIP’d employees left their jobs within the duration (30-60 days) of the PIP. These might be judged to be “success” cases (they left) but if this was the desired outcome, it could have been suggested in an in-person discussion without involving nasty paperwork. In another 10 cases, the employee fails the PIP and is usually fired. In 6 more cases, the PIP is ruled “inconclusive” because of factual inaccuracies, or because the PIP’d employee is able to garner support from elsewhere in the organization, and transfer to a more sympathetic manager, who kills the PIP. Only 2 actually “pass” the PIP. Also, a PIP’d employee is likely to face another PIP within six months if he stays with the same manager, while most managers don’t want to take a chance on someone who faced a PIP (even successfully) because, statistically speaking, an unblemished new hire is a better bet.
My advice to PIP’d employees is as follows. As I said, you’ve got 4 jobs now: (a) the PIP work, (b) emergent work, (c) legalistic fighting, and (d) finding another job in the event of failing the PIP. Regarding the first, don’t blow off the PIP work entirely, or at least not openly. It may seem like it’s pointless to do this work (and it is, because your future at that company has ended) but one needs to show a good-faith effort in any case. PIPs are not guarantees of employment during the specified duration; they can be “closed” early if it is judged as obvious that the employee will not meet the PIP’s deadlines. However, in the rare case that the PIP is actually fairly structured and you can complete it in time, do not use the “surplus” to move forward on the PIP work. Instead, use this time to learn new technologies (for the job search) and contribute to open-source projects (only on your own resources). Even if you pass the PIP, your days are numbered. Regarding the second, request in writing that the manager place any emergent responsibilities on the PIP calendar. Now is the time to document everything and be a pain in the ass. If he ignores these requests, you can make a case to HR to rule the PIP inconclusive, buying you time until the manager’s next opportunity to be PIP (usually a quarter or two later) you comes along. You should have a new job before that happens. On the third of your four jobs– the legalistic wrangling– document everything, but keep communication terse, objective, and professional. Don’t spend more than an hour per day on it, but if you can waste your manager’s time with HR paperwork in the hope of getting the PIP ruled inconclusive, do it. The fourth of these– the job search– is where one’s highest priority should be focused. Represent interviews (in email; again, document everything) as doctors’ appointments. This is also a great opportunity to disclose health issues, which reduces the probability of being fired without severance.
My advice for companies or managers considering the use of PIPs. Don’t. Sure, you’ve got version control and backups, but do you really want an essentially fired employee in the office for a month? It’s amazing to me that companies have security escort employees out of the building when they are officially terminated (at which point the shock has passed and emotions are likely to be resolved) but keep them in the office for months on PIPs, when they are effectively fired. PIP’d walking dead are far more damaging to morale than terminations.
Finally, my advice for employees who actually get fired is simple. Don’t be a dick. Disparaging firm-wide emails will ruin your reputation, and property damage is illegal and fucked-up and wrong, and therefore not in your interest at all. Depart cordially. On references, there are two kinds: unofficial (which can be a peer you select) and official (manager or HR). Usually official references say very little, but have your reference from that company checked by a professional service and get an attorney involved if anything negative is being said about you. Cultivate positive relationships with colleagues after your exit. Most importantly, move on quickly. When asked about the previous job, stay professional and represent the termination as one that you initiated. If your ex-employer ever contradicts you and says you were fired, then congratulations: you get a huge settlement for a negative reference.
Also, don’t let it hurt your self-esteem. There are two rites of passage in the modern corporate world. The first is getting fired. The second is learning that getting fired is not usually a reflection on the employee (more on this later, on who gets fired). Your self-esteem will benefit if you experience the second before the first.
Ok, so that’s a bit about the process. It’s important for people to know this stuff, so they know how to box if the fight comes to them. Now, I’d like to shed some light on who gets fired. Low performers, right? Well, not always. Companies initiating impersonal layoffs for financial reasons will usually drop low-performing teams and businesses, but not all those people are individually low performers. Personal firings are a different story. These don’t occur because “companies” choose to fire these people; people do. So what are some of the motivations that lead to this? First, let me say that political (non-necessary) firings usually occur in the middle-bottom and middle-top of an organization’s performance spectrum. The bottom 10% are usually so used to lifelong, serial incompetence that they’ve mastered office politics as a survival skill. The top 10% are objective, visible high-performers who tend to have political clout on account of the value they add to the organization. The middle 60 percent rarely stick out enough to get into trouble. This leaves two deciles– the 2nd and the 9th– that are most exposed to personal terminations.
Second-decile firings tend to be “trophy firings”, initiated by managers who wish to impress upon higher-ups that they “take action” on low performers. They aren’t the worst people in the organization, and whether it’s of economic benefit to retain them is not strongly resolved either way, but they’re weak enough that if they leave the organization, they won’t be missed.
Ninth-decile firings are “shot-from-the-bridge” firings, initiated against a high performer by a jealous peer before she develops the credibility and capability to become a threat (i.e. graduate into the objectively and visibly high-performing 10th decile). These people are usually fired because they’re creative, passionate, and opinionated. Now, managers don’t initiate ninth-decile firings, at least not willingly. Managers want more people to be more like their 9th- and 10th-decile reports. Rather, those firings to be initiated by “young wolves”, who are typically same-rank co-workers, but sometimes insecure middle managers, who sabotage the target’s ability to perform. The textbook young wolf is Pete Campbell in the early seasons of Mad Men, the slimy and machiavellian junior account executive who lies and threatens his way to the top. (Disclaimer: I wish the term for such people wasn’t young wolves. I like wolves. I like them better than most people.)
A direct confrontation with a manager about a 9th-decile report is not a politically wise idea, because managers know that 9th-decile employees are highly valuable. So young wolves focus on giving the target some disadvantage in project allocation. Most technical teams have a “people manager” (who is savvy to political machinations) and a technical lead (who is not usually politically savvy, but has authority to allocate projects, make technical decisions that affect the team, and delegate work). Tech leadership is a hard role because (a) it involves a lot of responsibility with minimal glory, and often no additional compensation, and (b) tech leads are responsible as individual contributors in addition to their leadership role. Thus, the tech lead is usually overburdened, and young wolves usually cozy up to him, with the intention of “helping out” on work allocation. Then they start delegating impossible, discouraging, or unsupported work to the target, the 9th-decile employee they want to shoot from the bridge before they become 10th-decile. When the target’s performance drops (transiently) to about the 7th or 8th decile, they begin to speak about how she “does good work, but isn’t as good as we thought she’d be”. As she sees leadership opportunities and the most interesting projects receding from view, her motivation declines further. By the time she’s at the 5th or 6th decile (because she’s now beginning to look for other opportunities, and prioritizing work that benefits her external career) the party line is that she’s “not giving her best”, which is, by this point, entirely true and equally irrelevant to whether it’s economically beneficial to employer to retain her. Social rejection of her is encouraged through gossip about her being “not a team player” and whispered suspicions that she’s looking for employment elsewhere. When she enters the 3rd or 4th decile, the young wolves engage her manager and– if the manager is unaware of what’s happened (a young-wolf situation)– she receives the first official warning signs, such as negative feedback delivered over email instead of in spoken form. This is an aggressive move that confirms this now-declining employee’s suspicions that her future there is over. If she’s still working there (unlikely, in a decent economy) by the time she falls into the 2nd decile, she’s now a trophy-fire.
This process of targeted, intentional demotivation, prosecuted not by managers (whose interests are aligned with the success of the whole team) but by young wolves, can occur over years or over days, but it’s a discernable pattern that I’ve seen play out dozens of times. The problem is that “flat” managerial arrangements don’t work. I don’t like the alternative (official hierarchy) much, so I wish they did work, but they almost always fail. A “flat” organization means “we’re large enough that we need hierarchy but we’re too socially inept to have hard conversations”. In most cases, I actually think that large companies (for post-industrial knowledge work) are inherently broken, because neither the hierarchical model nor the flat model results in good products. Why is “flat” so bad? It means that a manager has a ridiculous number of reports (sometimes over 50) and that it’s impossible for him to be on the lookout for young-wolf behavior, which is immensely damaging to the company because it tends to drive out the most creative individuals. Young wolves thrive in environments of managerial inattention.
How does one combat a young wolf within an organization? As with any progressive, but curable, parasitic infection, early detection is the key. A decent manager who identifies a young wolf will send it to the pound and have it put down, but effective young wolves evade managerial detection for a long time. Defining the term helps, but there’s a danger here. If “young wolf” enters the business lexicon, it will just become a term of disparagement that young wolves use for their targets. The most effective young wolves, instead of declaring their targets “not a team player”, will instead attempt to paint their targets as young wolves. So here, I don’t have the answer, but I have a thought.
I’ve been coding for five years, and I’ve made a serious mistake. At this point, I have no open source contributions. Two and a half years I put into a failed startup that should have allowed me to open-source my work (30,000 lines of Clojure code to build a custom graph-based database, and some of the best technical work of my life) but because the CEO of that failed startup is a vindictive asshole who wishes to punish me for “leaving him”, so that work is gone. For this entire five years, I was a “company man”, pumping 50 to 60 hours per week of software effort into companies with which I no longer have a relationship. I have a “great resume”, but nothing in the open-source world to show that I can actually code. I’ll be just fine, and I’m going to take some time to write some open-source work, but that’s a serious regret I have over how I’ve spent the last half-decade. Why’s open-source software so important? Radical transparency. It provides a socially beneficial mechanisms for programmers to demonstrate, objectively, high levels of skill. It provides sufficient job security to the best programmers that they can fearlessly avoid most office politics and focus on work, which generally makes the quality of that work a lot higher.
I think radical transparency should apply within large workplaces as well. Many middle managers discourage line (i.e. non-managerial) employees from taking initiatives that would make them visible to other departments, for the fear that it would make them a “flight risk”. Managers of undesirable projects are aware that external visibility for their reports will lead to transfers, and managers of average projects are often insecure that their projects might be undesirable. Moreover, many companies discourage unmetered work, such as education, career development and extra-hierarchical collaboration (i.e. helping out other teams) which further isolates line employees. The result of this is that, for many employees, the manager is literally the only person who knows what the employee is doing. This gives the manager free rein to represent his opinion of that employee (which, if the manager has 25 reports, is very probably unreliable) as objective fact. Human Resources (HR) is supposed to ameliorate conflicts that occur when this leverage is abused, but the truth about HR representatives involved in manager-employee disputes (and terminations) is that they work for the company’s lawyers (and that’s why they think PIPs are a good idea) and no one else. At any rate, this pattern of dysfunction and outsized managerial power is sometimes called “manager-as-SPOF”, where SPOF is a technical abbreviation for “single point of failure” (the weak point of a system).
Manager-as-SPOF, isolation, and a lack of transparency about who is doing what allow socially manipulative twerps (young wolves) to succeed. In this kind of environment, 9th- and 8th- and 7th-decile performers get almost no visibility and are defenseless against a political campaign against them. The solution is to make the contributions of these employees visible. It’s to make everyone’s contributions visible and to foster an environment that makes many of the worst manifestations of office politics untenable. It’s to encourage employees to share their contributions with the whole company, and to work on things that benefit all of their colleagues– not just their managers.
A future RT post will focus on this: how to construct a radically transparent workplace, and what it would look like.