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Pawel Brodzinski on Software Project Management

A Company Which Didn’t Know How to Fire People

There was a company, which was doing reasonably well. When times were good they were growing stronger. Some people were leaving, as it always happen, but more were coming on board. Since things were rolling fast no one really had time to stop and verify whether all new faces are doing fine.

Some time passed. Newbies were no longer newbies – they were semi-experienced people or at least their seniority would indicate that. Reality was a bit different. Some new people appeared to be great hires but other were, well, pretty mediocre.

Then stagnation period came. There were reasonable amount of work but not as much as it used to be yet somehow everyone looked still pretty busy. Incoming stream of new people were limited and the company mostly stuck with these who already were on board. World crisis increased employee retention.

Then people started telling stories. A story about the guy who was sleeping at his desk during one third of his office hours. A story about lad who was in the office barely 6 hours a day even though he was paid for 8-hour workday. A story about lass who was spending all days long browsing the web. A story about colleague from another office who claims she’s completely overworked yet she was doing about one tenth of what other people did on similar positions. Morale nose-dived. Productivity started dropping. On a side note – no, these examples weren’t made up.

Where’s the problem?

The first symptom was not doing much with poor-performers. OK, they were trying to fix their approach but when coaching and setting rules didn’t work there was no another steps. Underperformers soon learned they didn’t have to change.

A real problem was: the company wasn’t able to fire people.

They stuck with every single employee no matter how they sucked. And yes, I know they should try coaching, training, finding new role first. To some point they did. But face it: it isn’t possible to have only perfect teams and only perfect employees. It just doesn’t work that way. Even companies which have very strict recruitment process find black sheep in their teams from time to time. And vast majority of companies aren’t very demanding when it comes to recruitment. Especially when time is good and they need all hands on deck and would take almost anyone who can help at least a bit.

I understand lack of will to fire people. Firing people sucks. But it’s a part of manager’s job and from time to time it just has to be done. Cost of rejecting to do this is way higher than just poor performance of a couple of people. It spreads like a sickness. Yet somehow I still hear about companies accepting underperformers for some reason.

Update: Since the post received pretty much buzz in my company a small disclaimer: this is true story but not about my current company, not even about any IT company. Yet still it’s about a firm I know pretty well. Anyway I used the example since the case is pretty general.

in: software business, team management

7 comments… add one

  • Piotr Leszczyński July 22, 2009, 1:30 am

    I was just wondering if there is company, which we can't define as small and which doesn't apply to this scenario…

  • Jeff Edwards July 22, 2009, 10:56 am

    Pawel – you have described one of my nightmare projects. It was like quicksand where we sank deeper each month.

    This particular project for my employer had a high turnover rate (many reasons). Our client witnessed this and was deeply troubled. We quickly hired staff to fill the gaps on the project. In the rush to fill the gaps, my employer made offers to candidates who wouldn’t typically be hired. We found that we formed a team of mediocre performers. My employer felt stuck with this staff because the turnover rate was excessive. I guess a decision was made to focus more on bringing turnover under control than developing a high-performance team.

    These less-than-stellar performers stayed while our turnover rate stabilized. Like you observed, poor performance spread like a sickness to affect the morale of the few high performers.

  • Josh July 25, 2009, 9:16 pm

    Amen Pawel. I had to fire 2 people shortly after starting in my current role. Wasn't fun. Had to be done.

    Josh Nankivel

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 26, 2009, 11:38 am


    There are many medium and big companies which deal with the issue this way or another. Sometimes it would be some limit like "10% from each department" set by CEO sometimes it would be setting some healthy rules for managers responsible for staffing in their teams.

    If I, as a manager, had to choose between keeping all underperformers or firing them with little chance to hire substitutes I'd go for the former.

    And it wouldn't change much if I worked for bigger company.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 26, 2009, 11:42 am


    That's the same story I've experienced. Then you can see how poor performers harm team productivity but they are still considered as experienced and valuable team members. If you do nothing about that you screw not one project in a short perspective but many more in the long run.

  • Pawel Brodzinski July 26, 2009, 11:45 am


    It was probably the worst day of my professional career when I had to fire a group of people in situation as described above. Yet I don't regret. I still believe it had to be done.

  • Josh July 26, 2009, 11:51 am

    Yes, I've probably fired close to 20 people in my career. It never gets easy, but it does get easier.

    Josh Nankivel

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