If “Tracy” were on your team, how would you handle her?
Among a project manager’s most painful tasks is firing an employee. Nobody enjoys the experience, even when the employee clearly deserves to be booted. But it’s much worse when an individual is a drag on the team, not a complete failure. Few of us are certain when it’s time to say, “I give up. I must get rid of this person.”
It’s an age-old management dilemma, but we can all learn from the way other people handle such situations. Here’s the story of a real team “problem child” and the troubles “Tracy” caused her manager. You get the opportunity to decide what you would do if you were the project manager. Then you can compare notes with other project managers – before I tell you how the story really ended.
On to the story of Tracy, the almost-good-enough team member. (Names have been changed to protect the semi-competent.)
A municipal government hired Tracy right out of college to work on the Help Desk. During the job interview, Tracy impressed the department manager – we’ll call her Carolyn – with friendliness and energy. Those seemed like good qualities to bring to a job where Tracy would be on the phone, helping disgruntled staff whose printers didn’t work right or dealing with other technology snafus. Tracy didn’t have much experience in IT technical support (or anything else), but the organization was ready to provide training.
Everything started well. Tracy quickly learned the organization’s process, which included the typical help-desk triage (from “is it turned on?” to “I’ll transfer you to an engineer to address that oddity”). Certainly, she was full of energy, and she made friends easily by participating in team activities. For instance, Tracy was happy to pitch in with inter-department projects, such as using her Photoshop skills to design posters for morale-building project events or helping out with logistics for a company-wide fundraising race. And she was a fantastic communicator for face-to-face interactions – which accounted for 15% of her job.
But six months later, things weren’t doing so well. Tracy had lost a lot of personal energy, and it showed in her job. She wasn’t earnestly trying to help the people on the phone anymore. She passed issues to senior analysts before trying to resolve them (such as asking “Which printer did you use? Let’s see if it’s out of paper” or “Can you print from a different application?”).
And she wasn’t particular about getting the right analyst. “We train help desk personnel to be more sophisticated than that,” explained the company CIO – let’s call him Tim – “such as using troubleshooting charts and scripts to help staff identify which person to transfer to.” Tracy stopped going from the script and started sending to people haphazardly.
Obviously, this got Tracy in trouble with her manager, Carolyn, who genuinely wanted to understand the source of the problem. She got a lot of pushback and eye-rolling. “Well I’m not a network technician!” she’d say. Or, “It’s not my job, I’m not good at this!” – although learning those basics was part of the job she needed to learn those skills, and Tracy wasn’t interested in getting more training. “But that’s so boring!” she said – and that’s when she started ticking off her supervisor. Carolyn felt, “We gave you a chance in a good organization, and you’re blowing it.” Plus, Tracy’s co-workers felt as though their time was being wasted and that Tracy wasn’t pulling her weight, which became a morale problem.
Even though the HR department got involved with a performance improvement program (PIP), Tracy got worse. She showed up late to her shift, she became sullen and mean-spirited, and her lapses created more work for the other team members.
Finally, Carolyn had had enough, and told Tim that Tracy wasn’t measuring up. He felt he needed to get involved. “At 6 months, still on probation, we could let her go,” he said. “But she was such a nice person that we cut her a lot of slack.”
Okay, it’s your turn. You’re Tim, the senior manager brought in to resolve the situation.
Ready with your own answer? Let’s see how other managers would address the situation.