On being the employee who “needs improvement”

Reading Coraline’s post on a year at Github inspires a lot of feelings: feelings on behalf of a friend; feelings about culture; feelings about how organization structure always wins out over intent.

But it also brings up some much more personal feelings.

Once upon a time I had this job at an extremely small company. It was going along swimmingly, I thought. Until the day maybe half a year in when my bosses called me into a meeting to tell me that I had not been performing satisfactorily.

It was a remote job with a fair amount of autonomy (which was one of the original selling points for me), and I had been taking advantage of the freedom to prioritize family needs when they came up. To the degree that sometimes my bosses were left hanging, waiting for a day or more on my work.

Depending on your point of view, this was either “healthy priorities” or “behaving like a prima donna” (my words, not theirs). Whatever your perspective, it became clear that their expectations of my role did not match my expectations.

They proposed a program of weekly reviews of my performance. I felt really guilty that I had let them down, and I didn’t feel like I was in a good place to be seeking a new job, so I agreed. For the rest of my time there, until the company ultimately folded, I met with my bosses every week so they could tell me if I’d been doing a good enough job.

It was the most humiliating experience of my career. (I realize if this is the most humiliating thing I’ve had to deal, this puts me in a fairly privileged category.) It didn’t help, from my perspective, that I was having my performance reviewed by two guys who were younger than me, child-free, and who had less industry experience than myself.

By the end, they were quite happy with my work. But the damage was done. Even if the company hadn’t folded, I would never have felt comfortable there again. There was no longer a sense of working with mutual respect for each other. I was the misbehaving resource who had to be brought into line. To this day, I can’t run across one of my old bosses online without feeling a little twinge of pain.

From my biased perspective, it is difficult to see how these “personal improvement programs” for a disappointing employee can ever be a constructive force. At best they seem misguided. At worst they appear to be a cynical HR ploy to save face before terminating an employee.

Whatever stresses already existed in the employee’s life, they are only going to be multiplied by the fact that their bosses are literally standing in judgement over them on a weekly basis. Surely most people in tech are familiar by now with all the research showing that threats are the opposite of motivational. Threaten a creative professional, you get shitty creative solutions.

In the framework of a weekly performance review it is far too easy—inevitable even—for deeply personal conflicts to be reframed as “objective truth” about the employee’s abilities and worth.

Are the employee’s own needs—whether for resources, support, affirmation, autonomy, purpose, camaraderie, or something else—not being met? These possibilities get lost in a process that is focused on “bringing the employee’s performance up to an acceptable level”.

Maybe they are simply a poor fit for the job they are doing now. Jobs change, people evolve, and sometimes people get the wrong impression about a job from the get-go. In cases like this, the “personal improvement process” functions as a final insult: a way to plant the idea that it really was the employee’s fault, somehow.

(Don’t even get me started on yearly performance reviews. I don’t have time to write about what a useless abomination they are.)

My takeaway from pondering this today is pretty straightforward:

Talk to your people. Don’t wait. Do it now, and never stop. If they are meeting expectations, thank them regularly. If they aren’t meeting your needs or the needs of others in the company, tell them now. Don’t wait until you find yourself identifying “patterns”.

Be specific about specific incidents, be open about your feelings, and don’t fall back on the impersonal language of “we” or “the company”: “When you were missing from Slack all day yesterday, I felt concerned and also frustrated. My need for confidence went unmet, because I didn’t know the status of ticket #5432 and couldn’t tell my boss when it would be fixed. Can you give me a heads-up the next time you will be unavailable?”

Find out early if the employee’s current circumstances or work style are incompatible with the job they are doing. For instance, if they are feeling the need for frequent, short-notice mental health days and they are on a project with a need for fast, reliable feedback, either move them or let them go. If you can identify an incompatibility like this early enough, it doesn’t even have to be rancorous. Incompatibility happens. Nobody needs to feel like a failure over it.

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have some contractors to thank for a job well done.