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most productive fired first?

"I tend to agree with some posters that a productive *but* expensive person can be first to get shown the door. It's happened to me and I've seen it done to others."

-- from a comment in a recent thread.

This seems like good thread fodder. What does every one think? Probably it goes both ways. But I bet there are lots of cases where the best employees are let go first and it has to do with politics.

I read a book on the manufacturing industry years ago and it said that you have a lot of stuff going on where if one employee is much better than other ones, that makes the other guys look bad. So they will 'have a word' with that guy to make clear he needs to pace himself to the average, otherwise management will ask why isn't everybody as quick as Joe Newbie. If Joe doesn't slow down, then pretty soon a plan is put in place to teach Joe a lesson. Sabatoge his work, everybody ignores him, refuses to help him. Bump into the guy in the cafeteria. Slash his tires. Poison his dog. Standard junior high school I mean Trade Union practices to make sure he gets the message.

Some of my first jobs were in manufacturing and I've seen these tactics first hand myself, I'm sure others here have as well. The nail that sticks up gets pounded down. Tall poppies get cut.

The thing thaht is less often discussed is that it goes on in IT too but its not as consciously deliberate and planned out/tactical  as it is in union shops since they actually have a formal methodology of intimidation.

So, in some places, the reputation of the top guys has been ruined by those he's made to look bad. When its time for axings, get rid of that troublemaker first.

This happens in all shops that don't have management that really keeps on top of things and knows for certain what sort of code each developer is producing.

Tony Chang
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Getting fired is all about politics.  Whether you're good or not generally takes a back seat to whether you are liked.

enlightened one
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Sometimes firing is for cause, but i do t hink that it is often political. And in the case of layoffs, a list is made and I guarantee you that that list is always made with all the care of a popularity contest for prom queen.

Tony Chang
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Tony, I saw this "have a word" tactic happen in a not-so-blue-collar environment: Bell Labs!

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Sometimes a nail that sticks up deserves to get pounded down. Taking on extra work without any chance of being rewarded for doing so doesn't make a lot of sense to many people.

Why would a sherpa offer to carry extra supplies up Mount Everest unless someone was willing to pay them more money to do so? Carrying supplies up this mountain is a dangerous job, I am pretty sure most sherpas wouldn't dream of making their job more dangerous for themselves free of charge.


Saturday, February 07, 2004

I certainly don't presume to have any unified field theory in place to explain dismissals.

But in line with the foregoing observations, I think that the key fireable offense in many companies is to be "subversive". Subversion is defined here as inducing others to think in ways that are not intended by the local management.

Here's one scenario (I've lived it several times.) A high producer is right in the line of fire in this regard because it's probable that someone who demands a lot out of themselves also demands a lot out of others whom they support. So, the occupational risk associated with being a productive technologist in a rank-and-file job is frustration. Frustration then leads to cynicism, which then leads to complaining, and/or negative but accurate observations.

And the negative but accurate "emperor is buck naked" observations are usually fodder for dismissal, because they are subversive statements; they make people think more deeply than they would otherwise.

Most average companies operate on the Orwellian "reality is anything Big Brother says it is" principle. Only outstanding companies transcend this trap. There aren't many outstanding companies, since they're at the top of the bell curve.

Another job risk is just excessive stress and demand. In a job 13 years ago I was essentially fired because I melted down emotionally after being dogged nonstop by the assholes I reported to for completion of a project that involved 10K lines of C code developed and debugged solely by me from scratch. The application found its way essentially unchanged into their next product suite, and I was out the door, spoken of as a loose cannon and deserving firing.

This company made money off of a product developed by someone they basically raped mentally. I think this happens a lot in this industry.

Bored Bystander
Saturday, February 07, 2004

I got fired for going on a hunting trip to Mexico and not telling my boss.  I was going to tell her, but i doubt she would have understood that was more important than an upcoming but as always was going to be delayed 'launch.'  I liked that job, o' well.

Christopher Hester
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Hi Joel! Don't just tease me with that! Tell the story of what happened at Bell Labs?

Tony Chang
Saturday, February 07, 2004

THere is the flip side of the problem too:

If you're good, you'll sometimes be the last to be let go from a sinking ship.

Sometimes it's a good thing to be layed off - ast least you can focus 100% on finding a new job. I mean, you could just quit, but it seems irresponsible to quit when you don't have new employment lined up.

Sum Dum Gai
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Christopher - I would've fired you for that, too. Now if you came in and said "I have a hunting trip that's been scheduled for two months, and if I don't go I'm going to go insane" then it's a tougher call, but to just vanish? The pink slip would be on your desk after the fifth day of absence.

As for daisy-cutting, I agree with the general principle that if management is incompetent enough, then it's not "fire the best people" to them - it's "fire the troublemakers." It's like the guy at Camel who got called into the director's office and told "stop agreeing with the contractors" - his response was "I will when they stop being right."

One other situation is when you have contractors on staff. Then generally each of them is a line item in the budget. So there's:
Personnel Expenses ------------- $2,500,000
John Smith --------------------------- $125,000

So when cost-cutting time comes around, it's really obvious to the Board of Directors where there's some easy cash to save (never mind that John is the guy who built and maintains their flagship product...)

Philo

Philo
Saturday, February 07, 2004

"So, in some places, the reputation of the top guys has been ruined by those he's made to look bad. When its time for axings, get rid of that troublemaker first."

This is the natural instinct of insecure, petty, neurotic, jealous co-workers.  Instead of putting their energies forth in a positive, constructive way by improving themselves and and improving their production, they will always put forth their efforts into deconstruction and will tear down anyone who is seen to rise above the pack.  These type of folks can never rise above their pressuppostions.  Unfortunately we live on planet earth and these are the people we have to work with.  The moral of the story here is that when we get to work with that stellar person, we should try to emulate those things about that person's productivity we admire (or in other's cases what we are jealous of).

Smitty
Saturday, February 07, 2004

... I had a summer internship there, many many years ago, and at the end of the summer a co-worker gave me a little lecture about being overproductive and making the permanent employees "who have careers to worry about" look bad in comparison.

Joel Spolsky
Fog Creek Software
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Of course I deserved it.  I deserved it for the lack of work I did fofor the six months leading up to that as well.  That is the only way I would have been so brazen, as up until that point, that typeof  behavior tolerated.  If only i had set up an automated 'working from home today' email for a few days, I could still be on easy street.

I am not even remotely complaining.

Christopher Hester
Saturday, February 07, 2004

"Of course I deserved it. "

I don't understand the point of your post.  Basically you're saying you got fired for jerking your boss around.  That seems like the kind of stuff you pull when you're working at the ol' Mickey D's (you know, calling off work at the last minute on a  friday nite cuz your buddies want to go out).   

Smitty
Saturday, February 07, 2004

Mickey D's is a more classy place than  that shop

Christopher Hester
Saturday, February 07, 2004

"That seems like the kind of stuff you pull when you're working at the ol' Mickey D's "


If more people treated their careers like they did their McD's jobs, I think the world would be a better place.


Saturday, February 07, 2004

Christopher, any advice to someone that's in the same situation you were in?  The company I work for is, to put it mildly,  morally-challenged.


Saturday, February 07, 2004

Here's the Unified Field Theory on layoff selections...

During a layoff, *all* stay-or-go choices are based upon one thing and one thing only: the opinion of the deciding manager about which keep-set will most likely secure that manager's career.  This simple rule accounts for all the correct observations above.

veal
Sunday, February 08, 2004

My business partner was in that situation at his last job. He was in charge of a new department (looking at improvements to the business with the goal of saving money) but very productive, very good at what he did but he was expensive. He was made redundant last year by new management as part of a big change in the company and is now my business partner in our new consultancy company.

I think a big problem is a lack of foresight. If managers / directors could find it in themselves to look further ahead than the typical 'now' and 'cash' outlooks they would make better decisions and any short term losses would be paid back many times over by long term gains. It's just a case of having the confidence to look ahead and make decisions that aren't necessarily the typical reaction.

James U-S
Sunday, February 08, 2004

This is where the whole field of pop-economics has led us astray:  A company acts in it's own self interest.  Which anyone that has worked for more than a few days know is false.  A company doesn't act.  People that are running the company act in _their_ own self interest.  It just so happens that what's usually good for the company is good for the leader, but not always.


Sunday, February 08, 2004

Advice seeker:  Keep the resume current, cash reserves high, then enjoy yourself.  Try not to let the disfunction around you affect your stress level.  And don't ever act like there is anything wrong.  You might get canned for rocking the gravy boat that you and the rest are on.  They want to live in la la land just as much as you.  Don't try to be the guy that is going to bring dignity and work ethic to the company.  And know your situation is not the norm.  There are many well run compaines I am assuming.

I actually got fired for letting our CFO know that we were wasting about $80,000 a month on managed hosting, we were using only half of the boxes we had allocated.  My boss was disfunctional, and threw cash at every problem, which we were running out of.  I thought i was doing the right thing, the hunting trip was just the icing.

The first post anecdotal, people get fired for all kinds of reasons, many for cause.

Christopher Hester
Sunday, February 08, 2004

What you are saying Christopher is very true. The ostensible reason for a disciplinary dismissal is almost never the real one. Short of murdering a couple of ful time members of staff (or interns if your code is a bit iffy) it is always something else that gets management thinking of how to sack you.

Stephen Jones
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Blank hit the nail square atop its head.  I feel a strange compulsion to repeat the salient phrase chantlike.  When you come to recognize this point, very many realities of the business world burst into clear focus.

  A company doesn't act.
  A company doesn't act.
  A company doesn't act.

veal
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Exactly.  Corporate decisions are taken in the best interests of the decision makers, not the best interests of the company.  If a big layoff enables the fat cats to convince the compensation board that they saved the company millions and deserve a big bonus, that is what will be done even if that layoff causes the company to lose market share next year and become unprofitable.

If they were really making decisions for the health of the company, they'd also take a pay cut when they did the layoffs.

T. Norman
Sunday, February 08, 2004

Along these lines, being the most productive does mean that someone else is less productive. If this causes unhappiness amongst your peers, you may end up being branded as a non-team player - someone who can't work with authority, provide supervision, lend a hand blah blah. They can even go as far as to give reasons like: If you're so good, why didn't you help your team mates when they had problems xyz? It becomes easy to become a shooting target. Yes, expecially when there are many green eyed monsters who'd love to see you fall and stumble so that they can claim their spot under the sun.

Sometimes, it's not how good you are - it is what you are doing today that's getting your boss his next big promotion that matters. Forget about all that crap on customer service, writing solid code blah blah - that's not what they want.

I hate it too... but ah, that's life.

You have new mail
Monday, February 09, 2004

I've worked for a company where  they would constantly "have a word" with me in private whenever I had tried to get things done and ask me to stick to company procedure or try to "fit better into the team". My manager would prohibit me to speak to other teams' members directly even if my task implied that and high-level agreement between team leaders on what should be done was already achieved. They would ask people from other teams not to speak to me directly, but through my team leader (my technical expertise was soon recognised by other techies and was in a high demand).

I had a friend there being another's team leader. When he had joined the company his team was a dead-end, but numbers started improving each month although he seemed to do nothing (he is an expert in gradual change management).

I've read meeting minutes (please do not ask how :-) ) where management team would discuss him and say: "lets watch him closer next quarter and prove that he is not the man for the job".

Three month later they would put on paper: "He is still doing nothing [doesn't code], but still his team became best performing. We do not know why. During the next quarter we have to find a reason to lay him off."

He left the company shortly, so did I.

In many companies people would work for 10-12 years, would know very little about outside world, get promoted into management position and do everything to keep it.

Vlad Gudim
Monday, February 09, 2004

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