I’m being told to let my coworker fail on a $35 million project

A reader writes:

I am the technical lead for the design of a $35 million project, which includes responsibility for the quality of our design and ensuring that we meet project schedule and budget parameters; I’m also the project representative to our client and other agencies. As the project architect, I am additionally responsible for a major portion of this design. I manage the engineers on this project but do not have a supervisory relationship with them; they are my peers and we all work for the same federal organization.

One of my engineers is profoundly incompetent. I cannot emphasize this enough. She fulfills every negative stereotype of a government employee: she’s unmotivated and regularly misses deadlines, submits incomplete documents, ignores critical project emails, cannot operate our software, socializes all day, and apparently fudges her timesheet. Most importantly, she does not understand the basic technical principles of her discipline. She’s been with the organization for two decades; within the past five years, her job description changed slightly, but just enough that many of these issues have really come to light.

Our disciplines are similar and I completed the majority of this person’s work on previous projects, just as other architects have done. The rationale was expedience; it is easier to just do the work rather than continually handhold someone who is actively resisting our efforts. Our supervisors are aware of this employee’s limitations. The architects have been gently admonished for completing her work. I suspect that our department head is compiling a personnel file and needs extensive, concrete evidence of failure. By doing the engineer’s work, we inadvertently made this documentation process more difficult.

My concern is that I’m being directed to “allow” this person to fail on my $35 million project. I have no doubt this will happen. Our safety net is that we can supposedly remove the engineer and outsource the remainder of the design once it really starts going downhill. But it has to go south first. The resulting documentation should be the “nail in the coffin” for the personnel file. I’ve been assured that my own position in all this is above reproach because everyone knows I’m a high-value employee and my coworker is lousy.

This is not sitting well with me. Like I said, I’m responsible for project quality and I’m afraid it will reflect badly on me when I deliver my client a flaming turd, whether or not my immediate employer adores me. I am concerned about the amount of rework necessary once a capable engineer is brought on board, and how much time it will take me personally to get the project back on track (nights, weekends, holidays). I’m not confident that we’ll even be able to bring in another engineer in sufficient time to properly develop the design, which has significant implications for project success. Finally, as much as I’ve complained about my coworker, I also feel icky colluding against her. I brought my concerns to my boss in attempt to outsource this work at the project outset, not to involve myself in any scheming.

Frankly, this is a large project for me and this issue is a really stressful distraction. How do I approach my supervisor and department head and get them to re-evaluate this approach? I have a very good relationship with both of them, although my department head can be hard-headed. You’ve provided excellent scripts for many tricky situations and any guidance would be much appreciated.

Be straightforward. Say basically what you’ve said here: “I think I understand what you’re asking, but I have real concerns about it. If the project fails and we end up having to outsource this piece of it, I think an enormous amount of rework will be needed, and that would mean me working nights and weekends to get it back on track. I’m also concerned about my own reputation, since I’m the lead on the project. Do we have any other options here?”

That said … this might be the price of getting the problems with your coworker dealt with. It shouldn’t be the price, because based on what you’ve described, her manager should have plenty of ammunition to meet even the federal government’s sometimes ridiculously high standard of documentation for performance problems with public employees (fudging time sheets is pretty clear cut, as is missing deadlines). The stuff about it being close to impossible to fire people in the federal workforce generally isn’t true — it just takes time and effort and a commitment to pursuing, and all too often managers don’t bother because it’s a pain to do. It sounds like they’ve already got plenty to go on, so I’m not sure why they think a $35 million failure is required to get it done.

But apparently they do think it (and hey, they obviously know more about the situation than I do, so maybe there’s something more that would actually justify this approach, who knows).

You should still raise your concerns to them, though. Even if it doesn’t change the decision, you’ll hopefully get some reassurance about some of the things you’re worried about.

One thing I wouldn’t get too hung up on is feeling like you’re colluding against your coworker, because I don’t think that’s really the case. You’re being told to stop covering for an incompetent colleague so that her failures can be more clearly seen. That’s not really scheming; that’s “hey, we need you to stay in your lane so that we can solve this problem — and if you keep stepping in and solving it yourself, we can’t get at the root of it.” In cases where $35 million projects aren’t at stake, that’s a pretty reasonable management directive. It’s far more unnerving here because of the dollar figure attached to it, but as a general principle “stop covering up your coworker’s mistakes” isn’t a nefarious scheme.

{ 184 comments… read them below }

  1. Katie the Fed*

    OP, if you felt like being a whistleblower, this case might warrant it. The agency should have a hotline for fraud, waste and abuse – if you don’t get any headway with your manager this might be the next step you need to take.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      Echoing this. You should not let the project fail because management won’t manage. Your wasting thousands of dollars so they can have a record? No no no.

    2. Anon7*

      Can you explain what you mean by this a little more? I’m not really familiar with federal/government workplaces, so I’m curious.

      1. Jubilance*

        This isn’t just a federal thing – all public companies are required to have a Ethics hotline where employees can call and report issues, anonymously if they would like to. This is part of the Sarbanes-Oxley law, which was a response to the Enron & Worldcom scandals.

        Basically, the company has a hotline that’s manned 24/7 and if an employee wants to report something, they call the hotline. The info is passed to the relevant parties (HR, Legal, etc) for investigation and the employee who called can get updates, if they gave their name.

        1. CS Rep By Day, Writer By Night*

          Yes, I work for a huge publicly held company and one of the first things they go over in orientation is the Ethics hotline, plus there are posters all over the place about it as well.

        2. Anon7*

          Wow, I never knew! I guess not working in public companies has limited my exposure to this kind of thing. Thanks for the explanation!

      2. Pwyll*

        Everything Jubilance says is spot in. In addition, the Federal Government has hotlines set up to report fraud, waste and abuse of federal taxpayer funds, sometimes through a particular agency’s inspector general, sometimes through other independent agencies, and pretty much any agency who gets federal money can be investigated by the Government Accountability Office (GAO), which is Congress’ nonpartisan audit arm.

        OP, if you’re willing to be a whistleblower, call GAO’s FraudNet at (800) 424-5454. $35 Million is lot of taxpayer money.

    3. Mary the Old Fed*

      I am so glad this is the first comment. Make that FWA hotline bling, and do not trust that the engineer’s failure won’t bite you. It doesn’t matter how much your boss thinks she has your back; in the federal government, she has bosses upon bosses who might salt the earth to protect their own reps/budgets/etc.

    4. LQ*

      What do you say? “My boss wants me to stop doing someone else’s job.” They aren’t telling the OP to stop working, they are just saying, stop covering up for someone else. She’s essentially covering up misconduct. That’s a problem. She and others have repeatedly covered up for this person. The boss saying “stop doing someone else’s job” isn’t fraudulent. It is actually what they should be saying. The OP isn’t being told to sabotage the work. Just stop doing someone else’s job for them.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        Nothing wrong with not doing someone’s job. The problem is no backup when the job isn’t done. Allowing a project this size to fail is not an appropriate response.

        1. LQ*

          There is backup. The OP says there is a failsafe in place. The project won’t fail, they’ll have to bring someone else in to work on it. But continuing to cover up the coworker’s incompetence is just going to cost the government so much more money because the op who clearly has much more skills if they can do the job of 2 isn’t being able to flex those skills, this person is allowed to continue to work. Just keep covering up for them is a horrible option. Stop doing someone else’s job is a good response from a boss.

          1. Moonsaults*

            The problem is, even with a backup plan in place, they are wasting just as much money in the long run by letting it go down the shoot because they aren’t supposed to pick up the slack that the incompetent coworker is leaving.

            I understand the idea behind the plan that management has hatched but it’s a terrible one. Someone falsifying time records should be enough to can them, you shouldn’t just tank and let a customer eat it because you want to flush someone down the toilet they’ve been circling all these years.

        2. AnotherAlison*

          I agree with not allowing the project to fail. The person has already failed to this point on the project. I work on the consulting engineer side, not the government side, but the failure to-date would be enough to remove them from the project. We do tend to have people bounce around from project to project, but once enough PMs have refused to take you or kicked you off, that’s enough for termination. You don’t let $35 million projects fail. You don’t let $350,000 projects fail to prove a point.

      2. Christine*

        The OP can report the falsification of time cards. That is the fraud. I reported my supervisor via the hotline for using wage employee to drive her to doctor appointments, etc. She had him entering it on his wage time card so we were paying him; when she should have. I know the auditors met with her, not sure what the decision was but the wage employee quit work before his scheduled end date. I suspect they made her pay the state back. If you call & report the falsification of time cards; it will stay confidential if you do it from somewhere beside your work space; and do not tell anyone.

        Everyone says the stuff isn’t truly confidential; it was along as the callers keep quiet. You tell one person you called, it will leak out.

        1. LQ*

          That seems like a good thing to report. But I still think advocating for the OP to keep doing someone else’s job is a bad bad idea.

          1. Christine*

            They should be documenting the poor performance with write ups. If they keep writing her up & calling her out she might just quit. They should also put a PIP in place, requiring her to update their skills, etc. within a particular time frame. It sounds like someone is not wanting to do the documentation to support the need to fire her. Prefer to have a “huge” issue to fire her; that would be hard to appeal and leave no room for a PIP. Every time she fails to meet a deadline, write her up, etc. She’ll see the writing on the wall and start job searching. They should tell her their concerns, what they feel she needs to address it and if it’s not done, or she’s not willing to do it; than tell her that you do not believe she’s the right one for the job. That she might want to start looking.

            1. LQ*

              The thing is we aren’t talking to the supervisors here.

              The OPs options are:
              Keep covering up coworker’s incompetence
              Stop covering up coworker’s incompetence
              One of the above and look for a new job

              1. Christine*

                Forgot about that. I would be going back to the incompetent worker and inform her that I have too much on my plate to redo, etc. I have an issue with the lead having to let their own project fail. That way the individual has the heads up to perform better, realize that someone isn’t going cover and may start working elsewhere.

                1. Honeybee*

                  That doesn’t sound like a solution in this case. It sounds like the engineer is incapable of actually performing well on this project. This course of action is essentially option 2: stop covering the employee’s incompetence and allow the project to fail or get close, potentially requiring months of redone work and night and week work to bring it back up to speed.

                  I mean, the woman has been doing this for over 20 years. I guess there’s a slim chance she doesn’t realize she’s incompetent, but chances are better that she knows exactly what she’s doing and has simply been allowed to get away with it.

            2. stevenz*

              Another approach is to see if any subcontractors have had problems with her, and ask them to document them. This helped me a lot when I had a problem employee because it took away any appearance of he said-she said.

      3. CaliCali*

        It’s not blowing the whistle on the employee, it’s blowing the whistle on the leadership that is allowing a project to fail due to someone’s incompetence. The project being endangered is the primary problem; the employee problem is secondary.

          1. CaliCali*

            Eh, not quite:

            ” I am concerned about the amount of rework necessary once a capable engineer is brought on board, and how much time it will take me personally to get the project back on track (nights, weekends, holidays). I’m not confident that we’ll even be able to bring in another engineer in sufficient time to properly develop the design, which has significant implications for project success. ”

            The net, as described, is not very strong nor guaranteed. The OP is clearly worried about project failure — or, if not outright failure, the project suffering (and their reputation, as a result). I agree that OP shouldn’t be doing this other person’s work, but the solution should be to fire and replace the problem employee ASAP, not use time and money relative to a critical deliverable to check all the boxes on a personnel process.

            1. LQ*

              But the OP has actually been told the thing that they can do to help this happen is to stop doing that person’s work. We can’t fix the bosses, the bosses didn’t write in. We can only talk to the OP. The OP doesn’t get to fire this person.

              1. Engineer Girl*

                Causing the project to fail isn’t the only option. In fact, its one of the stupidest ones I’ve seen on this blog yet. And yes, I meant to use the word stupid.

          2. Mike C.*

            The fact that there is a safety net does not mean that it should be relied upon. Those are there as a last resort.

            Just because you have a parachute doesn’t mean you should jump from an airplane at the first sign of engine trouble.

          3. Engineer Girl*

            Um, you haven’t worked an engineering project have you? Rework is always more expensive than the first work. It is a shoehorn fit, and never quite patches right. Many times you get reduced functionality and a kludge workaround. That makes the project hard to maintain, raising maintenance costs. Then there is the additional testing for the rework. All this costs time and money. It also makes the group look incompetent. Failures like this could affect future contracts, as past performance is usually part of an award structure.
            In my own experience I have also noticed that management always thinks something is significantly easier than it really is. That “no problem one week redo” actually takes six weeks. Of overtime.
            If you really want cost savings you do it right the first time, not do it over.

      4. animaniactoo*

        “My boss wants me to ignore bad work that will need to be redone until it gets to a point where it will cost several thousand more to fix it. If the project can be saved at all at that point.”

      5. Coffee Brewer*

        OP is the architect of the project. The technical lead. Responsibilities include staying on budget. The success and failure of the project lies with her. The team’s job IS her job. There’s absolutely no reason to risk letting this project fail (or get close to failing) because from the client-side, it makes OP look incompetent. Missing deadlines and poor quality work should be enough to remove her from the project, at the very least.

      6. Cyrus*

        The problem is that they’re requiring a $35 million failure to fire someone, when, as Alison says, it should be much easier than that.

        I mean, maybe the LW has exaggerated or is wrong about certain details of the letter. Maybe the big project wouldn’t be “failed” so much as “slightly worse than it could have been;” maybe the problem employee is getting stuff done at the last minute rather than actually missing deadlines, or only missed one rather than several; maybe she’s not as incompetent at her duties as the LW makes her sound. But if the LW is completely accurate, the problem employee could and should have been fired before now. All that stuff is objective and a totally legitimate grounds for firing, even in the government. If it takes screwing up a $35 million project to get the problem employee fired, then there are only two likely explanations: the problem employee’s manager hasn’t been doing their job and documenting and dealing with that stuff all along, or some director higher up in the organization has put in place policies that make it much harder than it should be to get rid of someone.

        And to be clear, I’m not doubting the LW’s story, I’m just covering all the bases. But if it takes screwing up a $35 million project to get someone fired, that sounds a lot like waste, fraud, or abuse. Thus the hotline.

    5. M-C*

      I’m afraid that I feel that Katie the Fed is giving you really bad advice, OP. Putting your job on the line to cover up bad management, after you’ve covered up incompetence already, is just not good for either the project or yourself..

      1. Elle the new Fed*

        Why is whistleblowing bad advice? It’s good to unravel the incompetence if she is unable to make any headway with her superiors. Letting a $35 million project start to fail, even “with fail safes” (which aren’t guaranteed) is a gross misuse of public funds when you consider the time and energy it will take to make it up.

      2. Karo*

        I don’t think that Katie the Fed is advocating that at all. Unless I’m misreading, she’s explicitly advocating that the OP reveal it – not cover it up at all.

        1. Bunny*

          My question is if OP is union. If she is and the union gets wind of this, her work life could be miserable. If OP works with other union departments and there is outsourcing of any kind, there could be.. … issues. Former state employee here. Currently Union in private sector, so I’m not trying to say unions are evil.

      3. Mike C.*

        There is an ethical responsibility to report things like this and many, many states have whistle-blower protection laws.

    6. theblackdog*

      I was going to say that the fudging timesheets is immediate grounds for termination on her and her bosses should be acting on it. Whistleblowing might be the best route to go.

  2. 42*

    Can the coworker be reassigned to another smaller project (<35 mil) where they can be allowed to fail? And at the same time, get someone else in there?

    1. Awkward Interviewee*

      I was coming here to say the same thing. Why does the $35 million project have to be the one used to finally prove her incompetence? Can she be put on a smaller, less important project next, and fail on that one?

      1. Beezus*

        Maybe $35 million is small for this agency? It’s a staggering number on its own, but there’s no info in the OP’s letter to scale it. And logically, I would think it would need to be big enough to make a ripple and not be a side project for the coworker.

        1. designbot*

          Knowing nothing about the OP’s specific agency, but a bit about the world of architecture, that’s a mid-sized project. I’ve worked on projects measured in the billions, which were usually the scale of a large city block or two, and I’d say $35 million would probably be a nice mid-sized building. If you donate that much to a college campus or a museum you get a building named after you because you’ve mostly paid for it out of your own pocket.

    2. Catalin*

      Is there no way to set internal deadlines or to publish false (padded) deadlines to ensure that the bad coworker can fail notably AND the job can still be done? I’d think that every major project has a timeline that includes internal (recoverable) and external (hard) deadlines. Let them belly-flop in the kiddie pool, not at the Olympics.

    3. Nico m*

      Surely even an unfair dismissal settlement will be a fraction of the cost of the project going wrong.

  3. Red*

    Wouldn’t documenting that other people are having to pick up her slack be at least a step in the direction of what your PTB need, without letting the project outright bomb first?

    1. Snarkus Aurelius*

      No because she can say she “collaborated” in her defense even if “collaborate” means she sat in the same room and watched paint dry. That action blurs the lines between her incompetence and everyone else.

      Anytime someone steps up to do work, you run this risk. (That’s why there were several comments that complained about group work a few weeks back.)

      1. Engineer Girl*

        Not true. The other person needs to keep good records. And if everything is under configuration control it becomes obvious who touched what when. The tool do it automatically.

        1. Snarkus Aurelius*

          Perhaps that’s possible. But I’ve seen and worked with some government employees who turn into trial lawyers with grade A Teflon defenses, despite the piles and piles of proof.

          It’s so ironic. If they expended that energy into doing work, they wouldn’t have to defend themselves.

  4. Jane*

    OP, I think you should strongly resist the plans to let this project fail, at least as long as your name attached is to it. I work in very similar teapot-software making circumstances, and while the people directly involved with these sorts of projects usually know who was responsible for failure, everyone else blames the technical leads. It’s just the way this sort of thing goes in government agencies. Letting a project like this fail could torpedo your career. Also, even if it doesn’t hurt your career, it could really hurt your job satisfaction to watch months of your (and others’) hard work go down the drain due to bureaucracy.

    1. INTP*

      I strongly agree with this. Whatever they tell the OP, she’s in the ideal position to be the one thrown under the bus when the client is pissed – she’s supposed to be responsible for the work, and she’s visible to the client.

      If it’s absolutely unavoidable, make sure you get as many of these instructions in email as possible. CYA from all sides. Don’t trust them.

    2. silver*

      I agree completely. And there has to be a middle ground between ‘others covering her work’ and ‘initial project delivery fails’.

  5. AMG*

    Ok, I am having minor PTSD reading this. I have been in this situation and I can tell you that you need to get their feedback in writing. After the discussion, send an email with your concerns, with their response, and say that if you have misunderstood then they need to let you know. I have been in this situation, and the first thing said to me by my boss was to ask me why I let this happen. Uh, because you insisted despite my serious concerns? That whole thing about giving people enough rope to hang themselves?

    I am also a project manager, so I know I don’t need to tell you that the first person people will point at when there is a problem with the project won’t be the engineer. It will be you because you are responsible for this project’s success. Document this and don’t forget. Trust me.

    1. neverjaunty*

      Yes, so much this.

      And OP, sorry to add to the stress, but I have to wonder if they are not being straightforward with you about why you’re being asked to do this. I assume your organization has internal politics and bad managers like everywhere else. They are asking you to do an enormously problematic thing so they can fire an employee they really ought to be able to fire anyway.

      Document everything and keep copies at home.

        1. Christine*

          I do not feel good about the manager’s request to let it fail. To me it’s bad advise, and the manager is taking a lousy way around handling it. I agree with the e-mail request / clarification. It’s “cover your a@@” time.

          I would be afraid that the manager is setting me up to fail in this situation. Being paranoid. Would be interesting to know what the manager’s response would be for the request for clarification.

          OP be sure to send the responses to your home e-mail address so you have the time & stamp. If you get blamed you need documentation that is not on their server. Being paranoid.

          Call the fraud hotline about the time cards. It might cause a closer look at her performance, or lack of without you being a known part of it.

    2. LeRainDrop*

      Agree so much! Definitely do not let this go without, at a minimum, having your managers’ direction to you in writing.

    3. Jady*

      Agree! You have to cover your butt here as much as you can. Words mean nothing when people have their heads on chopping blocks.

      And if it’s an option, I’d want to loop in any other relevant parties. Including the boss’s boss and coworkers on the project.

      And send regular status messages via email so no one can say ‘oh I didn’t know it was getting this bad why didn’t you tell anyone!’

    4. Purest Green*

      What’s it called when you have PTSD but it’s still happening? Because just about everything in the OP’s letter is going on where I work curretly, minus it being a government workplace.

  6. Kyrielle*

    If you step in and take over for her, she will remain and you will be faced with her “contributions” again in the future. Also, your bosses will be annoyed with you, since they have directed you to do otherwise.

    If you back completely off as they’ve asked, you may face a large ($35 million) issue, frantic rework, and overtime.

    Can you go back to them and see if they think they can get her pulled from it sooner if you track stages and goals (which you’re doing anyway, yes? – if not, add that, $35 million makes a great excuse) and document each time she misses a date or quality target? (I don’t know industry rules; if you’d have to do that for the whole team, it might be hard on morale, though.)

    1. Kyrielle*

      Also, if she misses shorter-term goals, you can then cover for them after documenting they were missed, and document how it was covered and what that cost…then rinse and repeat on the next one.

      1. Anna No Mouse*

        This was my thought. Why does the entire project have to go pear-shaped just to prove one person sucks at her job? If she’s missing deadlines and her coworkers are having to cover for her, document every deadlines missed and incomplete submission, etc, and then document who had to complete the work, how much that cost, and how much could have been saved if someone competent was doing the work in the first place.

        I’m a government contractor and even in the land of government projects, $35 million isn’t a small sum. Someone will be held responsible, and it’s usually the person in charge of the project (you).

      2. OriginalYup*

        Totally agree with you and Anna No Mouse. It’s really frustrating that the OP’s bosses apparently see a choice between two options only, (a) status quo and (b) total project annihilation. It really doesn’t make sense for anyone, including the lousy coworker, that the project has to reach epic fail before poor performance can be quantified. Like, why do you need to wait for the whole house to burn down? Surely you can note someone repeatedly lighting multiple small kitchen fires while taking the batteries out of the smoke detector as a problem?

  7. Adam V*

    If your department head is the one asking you to do this, is there a way he can retake ownership of the project, so that when this part of it fails, it’s not placed on your shoulders?

    Also, since you normally do her part of the work anyway, do you want to just go ahead and start doing as much as you can now, so when they eventually fire her, it won’t take nearly as long for someone new to come in and take over that role, and you won’t have to work nights and weekends to catch up?

    1. nofelix*

      As project architect OP won’t want to give ownership to someone else. It’d be saying they couldn’t do their own job.

      1. Adam V*

        I was thinking more like them saying “I’m exercising my prerogative as department head to take ownership of this project for [duration] (however long it takes to get BadEngineer fired), and then I’ll take a back seat to [OP] again”.

      2. Marty Gentillon*

        Given management’s request, and her current resources, she can’t do her job. Her job is to make sure her projects run relatively smoothly, but allowing an incompetent engineer to self destruct is anything but smooth (especially when the backup plan is to “outsource the remainder of the design,” something which usually leads to eternal quality problems.)

    2. Honeybee*

      If the OP starts taking over as much of her work as he can now, then he’s essentially doing exactly what the manager has asked him NOT to do, which is cover for Jane (i.e. do her work) to keep the project running.

  8. LQ*

    You mention that there is a safety net for the project and that it has to go south. I’m not sure how far south but it doesn’t sound like so far the project actually fails. They bring someone else in to fix it (for less than I imagine the 35 million dollars).

    If people are constantly covering up for the coworker it can be hard to say, yes, this really is your fault. Especially if people (management) are nervous about it.

    Failure is ok sometimes. You covering up for your coworkers failures over and over again isn’t helping. Not her, not the projects (you’re going to be overworked, which isn’t good either), not the organization (they think she can keep doing it because hey, nothings failed). Failure is ok. You need to do your job well, that is your job. Your boss’s job is to handle your coworker, if you keep covering for her, you are stopping them from doing their job.
    (This speech was basically given to me when I was told to stop propping up someone. Not entirely perfect, but it helped me a lot in stepping back. That said, I had plenty of an idea of what to do when the time came to fix it, we brought someone in too and were able to save it, but I’d been going to all the meetings and making my own notes, just only doing my job.)

    1. KR*

      +1000000000 OP could also ask that they get their boss’s word (in writing) that they’re not responsible for whatever failure comes out of this. I feel like it could be useful. Either way OP must let their coworker fail.

      1. LQ*

        I think it would be super weird to ask for it in writing. As a boss it would feel super adversarial to have someone ask for that. The boss is asking you to do your job. That’s entirely what they are asking you to do. Do your job. Stop doing someone else’s job. The closest you’d get that in a writing is a pip that says you’re doing other people’s jobs and being insubordinate about only doing your own job.

        I know a lot of people are saying that, but at that point? Just leave. Really if you are that mad at your bosses nothing will make it better except leaving.

        1. Jess*

          The federal government has a solution for this exact situation: a Memorandum for the Record. You do not need to get your boss or any other parties to sign it.

          You write that thing up as soon as you can after a conversation or meeting to record who was there and what was discussed. Sign and date it. For extra assurance, email it to yourself so that you have an additional time/date stamp in the system.

        2. neverjaunty*

          What would be even super weirder is if the project fails, OP takes all the blame, and her bosses let it fall on her rather than admit she was instructed to let Problem Child drop the ball.

    2. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      But the “failsafe” is OP working nights, weekends, and holidays. If OP can prevent excessive overtime with a small amount of overtime now, it’s not really fair to say “ignore that the work needs to be done and just work even harder later to make it up”

      Management should be able to fire OP’s coworker without creating massive overtime for OP. The sooner a contractor can be brought on board, the sooner they can be brought up to speed and the whole team isn’t scrambling at the end because they needed one employee to screw up more than she already has.

      There is a better solution here than just letting the bad employee bring the project to the brink, getting rid of her, and then having OP and team + contractor drowning in rebuilding it.

      1. LQ*

        If the OP continues to endlessly cover up for the coworker it’s going to be harder and harder to get rid of this person (which has already been demonstrated by 20 years) so the OP is just going to continue to cover up this coworkers incompetence forever?

        The only thing the OP can to do get the coworker fired is stop doing the coworker’s job. The OP can’t fire the coworker, and continuing to do their job is continue to have them not be fired here.

        The OP isn’t the boss. We aren’t talking to the boss. The OP can try to talk to the boss to make sure that if something goes wrong (failsafe) that it won’t be a ton of extra work. But just keep swimming isn’t a good solution, it means this will continue.

        1. Engineer Girl*

          You’ve turned this into an either/or issue. Either the project fails or the employee is protected. There are so many options that are between these extremes.
          * Employee is given multiple short tasks and fails at those.
          * OP tells boss he’s uncomfortable allowing project to fail and tells boss he can’t ethically do it. Ask boss for other options (it’s bosses job, BTW to create those options).
          * OP only gives employee unimportant tasks. Allow employee to fail at the easiest tasks, demonstrating they can’t handle any.
          The bosses request is really off base and essentially unethical. It’s a waste of tax dollars.
          Failures of this sort are hard to recover.

    3. Marty Gentillon*

      That’s the problem, this safety net is entirely artificial, after all, adding additional headcounts to a late software project just makes it later. This is a recipe for a death march, and those nearly always produce creepy bug ridden software.

  9. Snarkus Aurelius*

    I’m going to suggest something a bit off the wall, but before I do, from one government employee to another, I feel your pain.  I know -exactly- how frustrated and irritated you feel.

    That said, I strongly recommend you go along with this.

    Yes, there are terrible consequences.  Yes, you may need to work some late nights.  Yes, the result will be less than stellar to those who are unaware of what’s happening.  Yes, you may make your employer look bad.

    But I’d argue TPTB already know this too, and they’ve decided this “nail in the coffin” is worth it. 

    Think about it like this.  This terrible employee has been at it for two decades so whatever havoc she has created in that time will pale in comparison to this $35 million dollar project in front of you.  Not only that, but like AAM said, I’m betting the requirements to get her fired are pretty high.  Her mucking up a high-profile, expensive project?  Yeah that end result isn’t up for debate, especially if this client is high-profile as well.  Putting her in a lower profile project or doing her work for her, again, covers up her competence.  Yes, you’re doing the right thing now, but what about the next project and the ones after that?  Your employer -still- has to deal with this problem.

    The short-term pain far outweighs the long-term BS your employer has had to tolerate, and I agree with that.  It’s unfortunate that you and your project will be collateral damage, BUT if you’re sticking with them for the long-run, put it in perspective.  It may suck for a few weeks or months, but in two or three years?  All of you will be relieved to be rid of this person.

    1. LQ*

      I agree.

      Yes it would be great if everyone were perfect all the time, but the thing I love about this blog is that it usually does a really good job of addressing reality. Sometimes bosses, or HR, or whoever are not great at firing people. Sometimes for them to fire someone they need to be able to feel really confident that that person is responsible and that they have “proof” (do they need it? No, but again, in the real world, sometimes they feel they need it) so in that realistic world, sometimes you have to watch something fail. Something where you could go, well she should have been fired when she screwed up her first project 20 years ago. But here in the real world, that didn’t happen. And now the bosses are ready to go forward with this but they need a showcase piece to say, listen, you screwed up and this project failed and we had to bring someone in. You’re done here.

      I’m completely with you, let this happen. Do your job, do your job well, but stop doing someone else’s job and covering for their incompetence.

      1. JOTeepe*

        “Sometimes bosses, or HR, or whoever are not great at firing people. Sometimes for them to fire someone they need to be able to feel really confident that that person is responsible and that they have “proof” (do they need it? No, but again, in the real world, sometimes they feel they need it).”

        Actually, in a lot of government sectors, you DO need it. And even sometimes with said “proof,” it’s not enough. Many government entities have very very very strong employee protections preventing them from being fired at-will, which is in place to prevent a spoils system/housecleaning every time there is a change in administration, which used to happen prior to the implementaiton of Federal civil service. There really IS a good reason for these protections, even if they do seem like they are overboard to outside onlookers.

        1. LQ*

          Yes, but as was mentioned, if the examples of time card fraud and such were really clear, they should be sufficient. That if is a hard if, I assume that the time card fraud isn’t provable, it can be very hard to prove that. Assuming of course that the OP isn’t accidentally helping the coworker cover those up. If the work gets done, it can be very hard to show that it wasn’t done. And if it was Sally’s job to do it, and it is done, there’s no proof it wasn’t done.

          1. JOTeepe*

            If you don’t punch a clock – and most white collar positions don’t, exempt or non-exempt – time card fraud is REALLY hard to prove.

        2. CMT*

          Yeah, especially if these employees are part of a union. You really can’t just fire somebody in that case.

    2. dabbler*

      It really depends on the nature of the work… This sounds like a fairly similar industry to my own, and if it is, this is more than just a couple of weeks or months of discomfort.

      A lot of times the higher-ups really have no concept of what us worker bees actually do down here at the nuts-and-bolts level, and it’s not so simple as “just a couple of late nights” or “bringing someone in to fix it”. If the design is built on a broken foundation, the whole thing is broken. I once spent two weeks rigging up a work-around for a tiny piece of data, because things weren’t done right from the beginning. By the time it got to me, it was too far gone to fix, so we (3 or 4 of us?) spent days/weeks coming up with a ballpark number that we should have been able to get in seconds if it was done properly.

      I could still be on the same project 2-3 years from now, and that problem will just have snowballed. And now everything takes 10 times longer than it should because nothing works right. And then the project is behind schedule and over budget.

      Not to mention the damage to the OP’s reputation. No one else will know the details/reasons why the project is the mess that it is, they’ll just know that OP was in charge of the disaster that is Project X. I’d seriously consider jumping ship if they’re intent on torpedoing the project.

      1. anonymasaurus maximus*

        This would be like the time my BIL was in charge of designing a guidance chip for a rocket, and then spent an additional year and a half redesigning the rocket because when they got to the live fire test, 3 of the 4 wings fell off. Which was an improvement over all 4 of the wings falling off in its previous live fire test – something that the contractor knew when they gave his company the plans for the rocket, but he and his company didn’t.

        It cost a ton of money.

      2. silver*

        My thoughts exactly. If they are intent on torpedoing the project, I would get out if I were you, OP.

  10. vivace*

    You might try creating more internal deadlines and reviews. That would allow you to establish a clear record of poor performance before the major deadlines come into play and also give you a buffer to cover and correct. If this coworker is as bad as you say, the problems will surface early.

    1. Troutwaxer*

      I think the OP has to go further than telling the boss “I’m uncomfortable with this,” and you’ve provided the roadmap with “more internal deadlines and reviews.” With your suggestion the OP can go to his/her boss and say, “I’m uncomfortable with firing her THIS way, let’s fire here THAT way instead,” and the OP can propose “more internal deadlines and reviews” to his/her manager. Or propose whatever else the OP can come up with to turn the bad worker away.

      Meanwhile, the OP can work on his/her escape plan – vitally necessary here, I think – and/or re-architecture the project themselves so there are no problems.

  11. Friendly Poster*

    Unless your management expressly told you to let the entire project fail, I think you have to assume that they were coming from a better place. She needs a chance to prove whether she can do the work. She could easily be on a PIP that you don’t know about in which she has committed to meeting deadlines and quality standards. If you go in assuming she won’t do either, and preemptively do her work, you are short changing everyone. Give her a chance to fail or succeed. That doesn’t mean let the entire project fail. Instead, it could mean watch carefully and stand back until it becomes clear that she won’t do what she is supposed to. Then step in. Will that mean a scramble at the end and a few extra work nights? Yes. But “letting her fail” doesn’t have to mean letting the project fail to. If you go in assuming your bosses did mean let the project fail, you could lose your credibility because you could be accusing them of something very serious that isn’t warranted.

    1. Leatherwings*

      Eh, I don’t think I agree with this take. Given all the context OP gave us, including how long incompetent coworker has been with the agency I think we can trust that she’s reading the situation correctly. It sounds like she’s been pretty directly told not to step in when coworker doesn’t do what she’s supposed to do.

  12. Engineer Girl*

    OP – I would go back to my boss and tell him that for something like this you will need a direct order from him in writing to let the project fail. Ask him to list the specifics of what he wants done. And tell him you will be looping in his boss too and getting him to sign it.

    It’s funny how quickly they back down when you ask them to out it in writing.

    1. Leatherwings*

      This would be a pretty adversarial approach IMO. It might be reasonable for OP to ask to get an email summarizing the conversation, but saying “I’m going to get this memo signed by you and your boss” is probably going to harm the relationship. It will demonstrate that OP has zero faith in her boss, and that’s probably not the direction she wants to go if she’s overseeing a project that is going to have some pretty sever hiccups.

      I also don’t think it will do anything – ultimately what will that letter do if the boss does a 180 later and gets pissed about the project failing? There’s no neutral court of law for jobs who will ajudicate this, it’ll be the same guy who signed the letter.

      1. Leatherwings*

        Also: if this is a government contract-type project, there’s no way a boss will agree to put it in writing. If that got back to the client or whoever is funding the project it would cause a huge issue. It would probably violate terms of the grant/contract. That doesn’t mean the instructions from the boss will disappear.

      2. LQ*

        Yeah, this seems incredibly adversarial. If I was going to do that I’d also be looking for a new job. The OP knows better than we do, but I’m guessing if this highly incompetent person is nearly impossible to fire, it would be pretty hard to fire the OP too. You aren’t gaining anything, you are just saying you don’t trust your boss and don’t believe them. If that’s the case? Look for a new job because that’s not going to change.

      3. Mike C.*

        When you’re working in an environment where you have to worry about things like engineering or formalized quality asking for formal documentation of unusual actions and multiple sources of approval is perfectly normal. It doesn’t demonstrate that the OP has “zero faith” in the boss nor (if the action is proper and ethical) should it harm the relationship.

        This isn’t an normal office environment where you just nod your head, smile and do whatever the hell the boss tells you to do. I mean seriously, do you folks think that systems requiring counter-signatures are adversarial as well? What about internal inspections or audits that fail, is that adversarial too?

        1. Leatherwings*

          I disagree. Asking for written documentation for something that hasn’t yet been documented (aka this isn’t part of the normal process) will escalate the situation. Saying “hey, I don’t trust you when you say you aren’t going to hold me accountable to this failure, so I need you to sign a formal document to hold you to that.” It’s the tone that the request would necessarily be made in that makes it adversarial, not the act of signing something itself.

          Again, there are ways to go about getting some written instructions (like an email summary) but asking your boss and bosses boss to sign a formal letter is weird.

          And no, I don’t think that systems requiring signatures is adversarial because it’s already a part of the process. Its standardized – in this case the instructions given are obviously not held to that standard and asking for a different standard for something like this will come across oddly.

          1. Engineer Girl*

            Getting multiple sign offs from managers is normal in engineering. Shoot, we require second set of eyes on the basic stuff!
            This is a major change to the project, and it would be utterly appropriate to get written direction on this “change of scope”.

      4. Cath in Canada*

        I’d have to agree with this. However, there are some other CYA things that the OP can do without mentioning the “let her fail” issue: collect any emails and meeting minutes that confirm the OP had informed and reminded the engineer of the deadlines and project requirements, that kind of thing (and keep a copy at home). If I was in this situation (and as a PM this letter is giving me heartburn), I’d be making damn sure I could prove that the engineer’s inevitable crash-and-burn wasn’t due to my failure to do my own job.

  13. OOF*

    OP, this is very much a strategy that some employers advise. When I worked at a state institution, I couldn’t fire an employee for well-documented incompetence at even the most basic functions of her role. I was told I needed to keep giving her higher-level tasks so that she could “fail more largely and publicly.” It was awful, and there was no way around it, as I would have lost my job if I fired her without following the protocol of TPTB. And TPTB were not in our management chain, but an HR chain. Just know that your own manager may not have the ability to make a different call than what’s been dictated, if the manager wants to keep their own job.

    I’m sorry you’re dealing with this.

    1. OP*

      Original poster here. Thank you for your insight; it does help to see it from the other side of the coin!

  14. Anna*

    I am a little confused. Is the boss telling the OP to let the whole $35mil project fail? Or just the engineer’s part of it, which wouldn’t cause the whole thing to collapse, but would highlight the failures of the engineer?

    1. Myrin*

      I’m glad I’m not the only one – I was confused about this while reading the letter and there are commenters arguing both ways, so I’m just all around lost here. I feel like that’s mostly due to not having a smidgen of an idea of this kind of government work and not even being able to imagine what such a project might be or look like, though. I’m very interested in reading the comments, though, as this situation is vicariously stressing me out hardcore.

      1. dabbler*

        I’m just guessing here, but this is what I was picturing. Say the project is something like designing a car.
        One team is in charge of designing the brake system, another team works on the exhaust, someone else on the sound system, etc. Basically you’ve got a lot of moving parts that need to come together to make a whole.

        So we’ll pretend OP’s team is in charge of the brakes. They’re responsible for the design of each part that goes into the system, picking the right materials, making sure they work like they’re supposed to. If the brake design is bad, the entire car doesn’t fail, they just need to go back and fix the problems with the brakes. But it doesn’t look very good for the guy in charge of the brake team…

        1. designbot*

          To use that analogy, the OP is in charge of the whole car coming together, and the problem coworker is in charge of the engine. If their portion goes poorly, yes, by most definitions the whole thing could fail–now that failure could be subtle (engine needs more repairs than usual over time) or it could be very dramatic (engine bursts into flames, killing passengers). OP’s boss wants to push things to a point where he can clearly say “This car doesn’t start, we need to bring in a new engineer.” and then outsource that portion of the work, but in doing that they create a) a very bad experience for the client when they see the engine is not delivered in working order, and b) a lot more work for OP, who will have to go the extra mile to get the new engineer up to speed.

          1. Marty Gentillon*

            Not to mention that bringing in the new engineer won’t be able to help for at least two months, during which they will only slow things down.

  15. Brett*

    I actually went through similar problems a few times as a technical lead on local government projects, in particular one similar scope project where the project manager checked out completely (on orders of his boss) to prove that the PMs were overworked. Also ran into plenty of issues with vendors who were not delivering on contract (and in that situation, your only option is to let them fail then pick up the pieces).

    Here are a few ideas I learned:
    Is it clear here that the product has to be delivered to the client before action can be taken?
    If not, then your best option could be to delineate internal deliverables and responsibilities (which I realize you probably cannot do personally as the technical lead) and stick to those. Document each benchmark that has to be hit and when those benchmarks are missed. If you can build enough of the evidence early, you can get new resources sooner.

    If you have to have a project delivered to the client first, then have her deliver it personally and make sure she is delivering some of the earliest deliverables. Rather than presenting solo to the clients, bring in other team members to present alongside you. Have her present her own work. When she disappears from your team later, the client will likely get the message that the unacceptable work will not continue.

    You are also concerned about your workload when she is removed. Your alternative, though, is to do all of the work for her anyway, just sooner rather than later. Since she will be replaced with outsourced work, you will have _more_ resources (but later in the project) if you follow through with letting her fail than if you cover for her.

    (My worst situation was a vendor that proposed a product that did not exist and literally violated the laws of physics with the proposed components. They were blatantly lying in the bid specs, but we could not evaluate the truthfulness of the bid. If they ended up qualified and low bidder, our only option would have been to have them fail to deliver, sue them, and go back to RFPs. Thankfully their proposal ended up disqualified for other reasons and we ended up with a great vendor.)

    1. M-C*

      I think Brett’s advice is probably the most appropriate to your situation, OP. I too have been in the same boat. And make no mistake about it, public failing of the project will reflect badly on you too in a general way, even if your immediate managers are satisfied in the short term that you helped them get rid of the dead weight.

      In my most glaring example of this situation, I coped by containing the damage, and making sure that the failure would be very public. So I assigned the Incompetent to redesigning the front page of the new site :-). Every time management would access the staging server, their hair stood up on end. To which I could answer truthfully “oh, but that’s just the part Incompetent is working on, go directly to link — and see how well the rest of the project is really working”. And then when the screaming got loud enough in the last couple weeks, I had a front page all ready to go I could just plop in in a couple hours and look like the savior I was :-). It also helped that I had a friendly configuration manager who’d discreetly remove the few library changes from Incompetent that’d cause general problems. You can probably do that yourself actually, just by looking up how to track her changes specifically. And you should -require- her to work on a branch that is only used for her part of the project, and check that this is the case (document if not, that’s another fireable offense).

      But really, this is where it’s at: containment, and public profile. Brett’s advice of internal deadlines to be missed is also excellent and could save you much messiness at the end.

      I’d also advise speaking directly to your management about how you can help with the ultimate goal of getting rid of Incompetent. You can start by digging out any documentation you have of previous failures, at least writing a credible narrative. Encourage others you know have covered up for them in the past to submit their own documentation (you’ll be surprised by how many people might have been quietly saving such a thing). And you should be documenting every single one of their upcoming transgressions meticulously, whether high-level professional one or simply mundane. For one, cheating on timesheets can probably easily be demonstrated, it’s a rare workplace these days that wouldn’t have a record of time logged in (which should suffice for a software Incompetent). Just be sure all your instructions to them are in writing and crystal clear, and that you write again your warnings about how they’re not conforming to what you required.

      But it might make everyone much happier if you can directly strategize with your management about how to contain the damage, make the failure more public, allow for her termination without jettisoning the entire project. They don’t have to feel like they must throw out the entire project and all your reputations with it in order to get rid of the one sticking point. Please stop feeling guilty about your participation in the process, they’ve totally brought it upon themselves and you’re merely holding up the honor of the profession :-)

      1. Engineer Girl*

        I love the idea of a separate work thread! I’d also strongly suggest a good ICD between her segment and the rest of the project. If you can strongly encapsulate her project that would be good too. And secretly work on your own capsule in parallel….

        1. Marty Gentillon*

          Yes, this. It is essentially what you would normally do, but slightly quieter. It saves the project, and keeps “death march” from being the backup plan. Who knows, after putting her in her own small world, where her failings will become obvious, she may even manage to raise to the occasion. Remember, there is nothing wrong with covering for occurrence, unless you do so quietly. Let the incompetence blow out, and have a replacement piece on the side ready to slot in.

  16. Boboccio*

    I wonder why Alison thinks it’s not next-to-impossible to fire in the public service. Having done HR for the federal government for several years, I can assure you that I have put the time and effort into firing the least competent employees I can imagine, all to end up with the result being a letter of reprimand rather than a termination. Many, many times. Things that make the front page of national newspapers still do not result in a termination, and it is not from a lack of effort, I assure you.

    1. De Minimis*

      I had the opposite experience…I worked for the feds for nearly three years, and there were probably about 2-3 firings during that time.

    2. Anna*

      In reality I don’t think it’s any more difficult to fire someone working in a government agency than it is to fire from a private business. Just look at the letters Alison answers here. The vast majority of them are from people who don’t work in government and a LOT of them are about how the OP has no idea how this person is still employed, etc. Honestly, I think it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Managers are told it’s really hard to fire someone from government work, so they don’t fire them because it’s so difficult. And then talk about how difficult it is to get rid of someone.

      My dad worked in civil service for the vast majority of my childhood. Every method we see here from private businesses to get rid of someone (good and bad) were employed to get rid of someone in civil service. Firings, pushing them out, passing them on to another manager/department, waiting them out, promoting them. It’s not actually significantly different.

      1. JOTeepe*

        I think the key difference though, is in many private entities, management just chooses not to act, even though they should. But they COULD act pretty swiftly, if they wanted to. This may just be speculation on my part, but that is how it seems.

      1. Helena*

        That article says that about 9,000 federal employees are fired per year by the federal government. According to OPM, in 2014 the government employed 4,185,000 people, so the federal government firing rate per year is 0.0022%.

        For a typical team with a dozen employees, that would be the equivalent of firing only one person every thirty-nine years. So, you’re right, it’s possible, but surely most private sector managers fire more than one person in their thirty-nine year career?

  17. Tim Skirvin*

    If a $35M project fails due to the contributions (or lack thereof) of a single employee, then that project was already doomed.

    1. Dan*

      We cross posted — you make the point more succinctly than I do, but you’re right. $35 mill covers well over 100 full time equivalents for a year. (Probably closer to 160 people depending on costs are calculated.)

    2. Joseph*

      Not true. I deal with government agencies (regulators) quite a bit. And I always, *always* want the agencies to have a single competent person assigned to the project rather than splitting it up. Because with just one regulator to deal with, you end up with him really understanding the project, knowing our limitations, and providing very solid guidance. When I instead have to deal with 3+ different regulators each handling one aspect, there’s a ton of repeat questions, information that goes to some people but not all, and even contradictory instructions/requirements – even though each regulator individually is very competent, it’s the old “too many cooks in the kitchen” problem.

      1. Joseph*

        Just to be clear, mine was an example – may not necessarily be the case here (since there isn’t really much info, it’s hard to tell what’s going on), but there are situations where having just one person running a key aspect is fairly reasonable even though the dollar amount might seem large.
        The real problem here is *not* their organizational structure relying on one employee, it’s the fact that the senior managers can’t/won’t remove a problem employee. If the employee was competent and reliable, it wouldn’t matter than there’s One Crucial Guy.

    3. AnotherAlison*

      I could see it, *IF* the direction given to the team was to let them fail. Your team is usually working together to help, if someone falls behind schedule, or you’ve got the engineering manager and the quality auditor to make sure the design was good & all the steps of the process were followed.

    4. OP*

      Eh, I’m not sure I agree. Each person has a unique task that contributes to the completed product. Private organizations that perform this task have an identical arrangement. The problem for us is removing poor performers. (The cake’s not going to be any good if the eggs are rotten.)

  18. Lora*

    Can you look through your Primavera or whatever you’re using for project management to find the points in the critical path(s) where her work can be reviewed prior to it going to the next person, and make that the “due date” as far as she is concerned, and then when she blows by the due date you still have a little time to go to the project owners and say, “OK, she missed a due date and now we are firefighting. We will now be eating $X to get this done externally (or whatever Plan B is)”?

    I would also invite her to your regular review meetings, whenever those are, and have her report on progress directly to the customers and management. That makes it clear, when she has nothing to present, that this is allllllll her. As the project manager, you can do that thing where you give her a concerned look and ask, “what resources do you need to complete this in the current timeline?”

    How do you write change orders for this contract – can you write a change order just for a schedule (but not monetary) change? Are there late delivery penalties? The way my contracts are set up, I write change orders for schedule changes too, because so many of those are due to clients not reviewing milestone documents in a timely fashion.

    You’re tracking spend for the project, right? You should be able to pull up the amount spent and the float time lost and so forth due to this person. I would push to find out what Plan B is – I think you are right, they will try to have a contractor fill in. The best thing you can do for that is vet out a few contractors and put together a transfer package with a complete set of specs and a current schedule. I spend a LOT of time chasing down non-existent URS’s and process information, so if you can have all that and a list of approved vendors and either a set of quotes or, best of all, blanket POs the new person can order from. You probably know *approximately* how much things cost, so you can make reasonable guestimates if you need to.

    In terms of letting her fail vs letting the project fail: the project probably has 25-40% margin. You can spend pretty much the entire margin if you need to in hiring contractors. The client won’t know the difference, but your management sure will. I would prepare tech transfer information packages with the most up to date drawings, vendors and URS you can put together and be ready for that to happen.

    1. Troutwaxer*

      I love this idea. Let her own her own screw ups in front of the client and management and everyone. It might even sting enough that she starts to do better. And get out while your reputation is good!

  19. Michele*

    It seems there is no way that the OP will also be the brunt of this project failing. To me, it seems higher ups will blame OP as well as the incompetent worker and OP will face consequences as well.

  20. CMT*

    I’ve been in a similar but less intense (no $35m projects) case, and let me tell you: It was totally worth it. That person is gone now and even though they can’t fill the position, everybody is much happier and there is much more work getting done.

  21. Dan*

    I just want to clarify something that isn’t actually crystal clear to me: Are the OP and her team contractors, or federal employees? While I see the phrase “we all work for the same federal organization” that resembles terminology I have used as a contractor, as most people are likely to recognize said federal agency, and less likely to recognize some small time contractor.

    FWIW, in terms of project size, $35 mil is chump change in the grand scheme of things, but when you’re new to project management, $35 mil is not trivial. My first project I managed (and for that matter, just assisted in the management of) was $4 mil, and that was certainly big enough. If I were fully in charge of a $35 mil project and it was my first one, no, I would not let the whole project go south.

    But I don’t think the whole project is resting on one person’s shoulders (that is, the problem employee). $35 mil covers over 100 full time employees for a year, and there’s just no way that one person in the “rank and file” can torpedo the whole thing.

    1. OP*

      Hi Dan, we are all federal employees not contractors. For additional reference: This is not my first project and $35 million is a pretty decent size for the type of work we do. Each employee’s contribution is necessary for the complete product – each element is intertwined.

  22. Chalupa Batman*

    I know exactly nothing about this type of work, but is there an intermediate point where the coworker’s incompetence will be clear, but the client hasn’t seen the product yet? Depending on the job and how much more documentation they need, your boss may be able to pinpoint a spot earlier in the game when it’s clear that the project is on the wrong track and the coworker can be removed before it all goes down in flames. And if I were the contractor called to fix this, I wouldn’t much appreciate being brought in to save the day for a department that went from “we’re giving her one more chance” to “this is a complete disaster” weeks before bringing me in.

    1. OP*

      This is probably what we’re going to do, I’m just not clear on when that intermediate point may be. I’d prefer early in the project (like, yesterday), but I’ll need to work that out with my manager.

      1. Engineer Girl*

        You may want multiple points to show the trend. One thing should be happening if she is failing – the delta on “work not done” should be increasing across time. So in March she’s at 90% target, by April she’s slipped to 80% of target, May is 70% of target.

  23. designbot*

    The only issue I take with the advice given is that I wouldn’t reference your reputation, but rather your pride in the work you do. Architecture is on a kick of pretending to be super-flat hierarchically, “leave your ego at the door,” and bringing up your personal reputation smacks of ego, while pride in the work is an almost compulsive thing in the industry that anyone would sympathize with. If they can see you as someone who just reflexively cannot let this fail, that’s probably the best outcome.

  24. March*

    I’m not sure about this, but since OP mentions engineers and that this coworker is an emgineer, I’ll ask the question: could it be a violation of the professional engineers’ association code of ethics to let the project fail like this? And if so, could letting it happen get OP (if OP is also an engineer) in trouble with the professional association?

    Admittedly I’ve still got very little experience with the code of ethics here since I’m only a recent graduate, so it may be fine from that respect. But knowing this could damage OP’s reputation to deliver a “flaming turd” to their client and could cost thousands of dollars and time to fix, I have to wonder.

    1. OP*

      My profession does have a code of conduct, and I have a fiduciary obligation to my clients. In all honesty, there’s no way I will let this project go out the door without fixing it first. I was really hoping to get someone competent onboard early in the project and it just isn’t working out that way.

  25. Turtle Candle*

    I had to do this (admittedly on a much smaller project). What happened was that we had a team member who did not do her work, or did it very badly. The rest of us, taking pride in the product, would swoop in at the last minute and fix it, even though it was tasks that were very clearly and decisively not our responsibility but hers–not for her benefit, but purely out of wanting to put out something good. Then… she would go to the bosses and tell them “see how wonderfully it turned out?” and leverage that into even larger and more ambitious projects, which meant the rest of us had to do more ass-covering work with each cycle.

    Making matters worse, she was very quick to blame the rest of us when something did go wrong, so she took credit for the successes but shook off the failures. Since she had a tendency to get to the bosses first, it put us on the defensive: any attempt to point out that she wasn’t doing her bit just sounded like sour grapes.

    The decision the rest of the team made was to just… stop doing her work. We’d do our own parts of the project to the best of our ability, and then just… not do her share. And it worked: when the thing fell apart and she went “but it didn’t get done because Turtle didn’t do Y,” I could say, quite truthfully and with documentation to back it up, that Y was not actually part of my set of responsibilities. She finally got removed from the project (and, eventually, fired).

    I didn’t like doing it. I actually hated doing it. In other situations, I would not do it, because I prefer to pitch in and make a great product than to stick to rigid definitions of whose responsibility is what. But it did work.

    1. OP*

      It’s frustrating, isn’t it? I hate, hate, HATE the idea of letting subpar work go out the door.

      1. Turtle Candle*

        Yes, I hated it. The way it shook out was that the component we were working on was functional, but clunky, inefficient, and ugly. It was hard to feel any triumph in hitting the release milestone, knowing that the end result was subpar (although at least it worked, I suppose). It’s definitely a last-ditch kind of tactic, for that very reason: even when it’s effective, it is killer for morale.

        (Although we were very glad to be rid of her for the next iteration!)

  26. why yes, another fed*

    Is it possible to implement a general policy of when someone on the team misses a (very generous deadline) automatically re-assign the task to someone else? That way, this incompetent person can continue to fail, and there is a system in place for backup to step in. It can be presented to the team as an opportunity for cross-training & resource allocation, but in reality it imposes a formal method (documentation!!) for dealing with missed deadlines while the project is still in house.

    For example, it normally takes 2 weeks to design a new teapot handle. If any engineer hasn’t finished their teapot handle in 2.5 weeks, the project goes back into a pool for reassignment. In reality, competent engineers A, B, C will finish their teapot handles in time and incompetent engineer will be the only one throwing stuff back. This approach could be applied to multiple levels of teapot manufacture: handle-making, assembly, packaging, shipping, coordination for gift baskets, etc.

    As a bonus, you’ll get to track metrics of who took on extra work. Engineer A took on the handles, Engineer B took on assembly, etc. Incompetent Engineer threw 5 projects into the pool, and didn’t take on overages (b/c no one else is generating them).

    Frankly, unless Incompetent Engineer is in the role of PM, I can’t see how letting her fail *won’t* reflect poorly on OP. What is the company’s expectation of OP if one of the engineers unexpectedly needed a lot of leave time (i.e. got hit by a bus – no seriously, a car accident involving a semi-truck could easily result in a month-long hospital stay followed by weeks of residential rehab)? Would they still expect the technical design in time? If so, OP will most definitely be questioned why (s)he didn’t address slippage earlier.

  27. Mel*

    Since you are the project manager could you “let her fail” and minimize the impact to the client. I’m thinking something like giving her pre-deadlines or benchmarks to turn into you or another architect for review before they are due on the project.

  28. VivaL*

    Rather than getting a “you told me to let this project fail” memo signed (as I agree it would be adversarial) could you document your concerns with this employee and the potential impact it has on the project? How many hours, how many people, how many $ it will cost if her behavior isnt addressed?

    Make a case to your boss, her boss, and anyone else you think is important, for “As we discussed, I’m not going to do her job for her, but these are the issues that I see down the road with this strategy, up to and including failure of the project” and then it’s really up to them to address it as they see fit. And feel free to make this case more than once, as each action (or inaction) impacts the project.

    You can do what you can do to ensure the success of a project, but you must also receive organizational and management support. Without it, there’s only so much that can be done. I hope it works out for you.

  29. OP*

    Original Poster here. Frankly, I was a little nervous about submitting this letter. I know a lot of people read this blog and I was concerned it might be too identifiable. But I’m glad it was posted; I agree with Alison’s response and appreciate everyone’s comments. I will find a diplomatic but concrete way of registering my concern to my boss and department head. To follow up on some of your other comments/suggestions:

    1. My career is not in jeopardy, just my over-inflated ego ;)
    2. The project does have a fail-safe, in that we can outsource work. The challenge is that the type of work performed requires a great deal of coordination and has a concrete end-date. So we add risk to the project when we lose coordination time with that particular discipline.
    4. Multiple people suggested that I schedule additional internal milestones, early in the project. This is a great idea and I will absolutely do it.
    5. I don’t consider this to be a whistle-blower scenario. Apparently upper management has tried to remove this individual before without success. (I didn’t realize this when I wrote in.) I suppose they feel it necessary to up the ante in order to get more concrete documentation. It just creates more work for me…

    1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

      Thanks for the additional info OP. Do you know what is meant by your mangers when they say they’ve tried to get rid of her but have been unsuccessful? I’ve never really understood that. If an employee isn’t performing adequately, how hard to did they try to get rid of her if they were “unsuccessful”?

      That said, I think early milestones with clear deadlines and requirements early on that you can show she failed to meet should be more than sufficient without torpedoing the project in the long term.

      Separately, is it possible to have the work done and not turned in, so it is clear she hasn’t done it, but it’s there saved for once she is gone and it is needed? Or is that way off base?

      1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

        Not that you should HAVE to do her work, of course. The doing the work and saving it without turning it in is based on hoping that she does get fired, you have covered this one last time behind the scenes so that you don’t have more work later, and then someone is hired that can perform the duties and this doesn’t occur again.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        In the federal govt, it’s really common for HR to keep pushing back and saying they need more documentation or the person needs to be given more chances.

        1. I GOTS TO KNOW!*

          That’s incredibly frustrating. Is federal employment not at will? I would think years of examples would be sufficient for termination. (I am sure this as been covered before, but I haven’t read a ton of the fed government posts here yet)

          1. Brett*

            It is at-will, but there is also a right to due process for employees that does not exist in the private sector. When you combine this with the property right in continued employment, you end up with a more touchy process to terminate an employee. (Nearly all employees have a property right in continued employment, but a private employer can deprive you of that property right without due process of law; a public employer cannot.)

            The simplified way I explain this is that in a situation where a terminated (not laid off) private sector employee would have an entitlement to unemployment, a public sector employee has a right to continuing being employed. It is not quite accurate, but it gives a general idea of the difference between the two situations and why there is so much documentation for public sector termination.

          2. Mel*

            Many civil service jobs have due process protections, meaning the govt has to be prepared to prove to someone or some entity that they gave every opportunity for the employee to succeed. This means doing a a supervisor has to do a really good job of managing, documenting, coaching, and corrective action and it all has to be in compliance with procedures and the severity of the reason for the termination has to be consistent with other terms. The reason people think it’s really hard to get fired in govt is because supervisors are ready to fire but usually haven’t done their part to show all of those things.

            1. De Minimis*

              A lot of federal workplaces have union employees–I think that’s usually the reason why the process can be so difficult, not the federal environment itself—not because the rules don’t allow it, but because managers often don’t know what steps have to be followed.

              The firings at my last job were for things that couldn’t really be justified or defended. In one case the union mainly was able to mitigate things for the fired employee [they had been there long enough where they were able to just retire] but they had no option to remain there.

      3. Mel*

        In govt you can’t hold someone accountable for not doing a task if its taken away from them before they complete it. And most managers tend not to do a real good job of documenting behavior problems. They do what’s natural- less interaction.

      4. Kyrielle*

        If this is something like software development, the work needed for the same result changes over time. That is, if I have code A at time 1, and I add feature B, I might write it one way. Then features C-F get added, and the code that was feature B is changed by those. So if I wrote feature B and saved it for later…it’s now completely out of date, was not considered in writing features C-F, and may need significant additional work (or just to be redone from the ground up) to implement in the new, feature F-compliant, environment.

        The larger and longer the project, and the earlier feature B was written but not committed, the greater the likelihood of having to throw it out and start over (usually after additional time wasted confirming you have to throw it out and start over).

        It may be the case that A-CDEF-B would be a perfectly reasonable order of implementation, and so would A-B-CDEF, but implementing B in position 2 but only adding it after F is present will fall apart. :/

        It’s also possible that G is hard-dependent on B, and having B “appear” after F will mean that G (which isn’t dependent on C-F) can’t even start development on time.

    2. Cari*

      Are you responsible for allocating work OP, or do you have the ear of the person who does? Would it be possible to assign work that’s more in line with the problem colleague’s skills, work that if it doesn’t get done by said employee, it won’t impact on the project badly?

      1. Cari*

        I guess it would be part of the internal milestones idea? If problem employee is told to meet milestones that you known she won’t meet due to her poor work ethic and not due to her lack of necessary skills, that’s evidence for your upper management, and evidence to protect yourself from any accusations or criticism. If she’s given tasks and jobs you all know she can’t do, and she fails to do them, she could always then claim she was set up to fail…

  30. Unegen*

    The LW needs to start working on his/her resume NOW. It’s a $35 million project. If something goes wrong with it–which appears to be management’s undocumented plan–then heads are going to roll. Since nothing appears to be written down guaranteeing the LW gets to keep hizzer job in the event of the project failing, the LW would be wise to consider that if a supervisor had to make a choice between admitting that the plan was to let Incompetent Employee get themselves fired (and it just went a little too far, sinking the project) or blaming the LW for “letting the project fail”, firing him/her, and then quietly firing Incompetent Employee too…which option do you think the supervisor will take?

    1. Unegen*

      Aaaand it’s days like this when I wish I’d read the whole thread before commenting. D’oh!

    2. AW*

      the LW gets to keep hizzer job

      Is “hizzer” a mashup of “his or her”? Because I kind of love it.

      1. Dweali*

        Yes I vote that we all adopt hizzer to use from now on (bonus it’s already in my phones autocorrect)

    3. Mel*

      Heads don’t roll when things go wrong on engineering projects. Things go wrong all the time with all engineering projects. Those project managers earn their keep by figuring out ways to deal with those issues while sticking to budgets and deadlines. One poor performing engineer can definitely derail a project but that’s only if you don’t manage the situation. There are a lot bigger problems that these folks have to deal with.

  31. AW*

    I’m afraid it will reflect badly on me when I deliver my client a flaming turd, whether or not my immediate employer adores me.

    Is there a professional way for the OP to ask why management is OK with delivering a flaming turd to the client? I can’t imagine they’re already aware and OK with their project being the sacrifice necessary to get rid of this co-worker (though if it turns out they are, that’s great for the OP). Can they at least set expectations for the client now so that they’re no longer expecting the project by the original deadline?

  32. nonegiven*

    Can you let her keep failing but document every step of the way.

    x’s work is late. This puts the project in jeopardy.

    x’s work is wrong. This will add $XXX to the cost of the project.

    x’s late work finally handed in but still wrong, the project is in jeopardy, and cost overruns estimated to be $XXX.

    Every step of the way.

  33. SusanIvanova*

    Aw, I sympathize so much. We had one of those – Coworker Coffeecup, because I could have done his job plus mine just by becoming more caffeinated. At least he was (eventually, after delaying a few projects) only assigned things that were nice to have but not essential, so it didn’t matter that they didn’t get done. And when he *did* get fired, I knocked off a dozen of his tasks in one day just to prove the point.

    Any way to give her tasks that aren’t on a critical path, so that it doesn’t delay things as much when you have to wait for her to be gone? Or smaller ones with short deadlines, to speed up the “look how much she doesn’t do” process?

  34. Marisol*

    “and that would mean me working nights and weekends to get it back on track.” Personally, I wouldn’t say that for fear that the powers that be wouldn’t care. I would list all the high-stakes reasons you mention, but not that one. If they are willing to risk a $35 million dollar project, then they’d surely be willing to sacrifice your nights and weekends. Can you think of other strategies to let this employee fail and suggest them, perhaps something like reassigning her to a less important project that she could fail on?

  35. stevenz*

    A concern of mine is what exactly her role is in this project. Is her incompetence leading to a design that is unsafe? If so, there is no question but to get immediate action on this.

  36. Engineer Girl*

    OP, I’ve been thinking of your situation this whole afternoon. I’m horrified by what they asked of you.

    Are you familiar with technical debt? (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Technical_debt) The Wiki definition is for coding but it holds true for all engineering. I believe that your management has failed to correctly assess the true technical debt that will occur as a result of their directive.

    Perhaps you could specifically list the types of debt you will accrue if you go with the management directive. Get really specific on the cost of rework/retest. Show that to your manager so he knows the true cost of what he’s asking.

    Part of the problem is that they are creating technical debt to “fix” an HR issue. HR can’t possibly know the true cost of the technical debt. I suspect they are only evaluating the HR part of the problem, and not evaluating the impact of the solution on the rest of the project. I suspect your manager has underestimated it too. You may be able to push back if there is a high cost low benefit.

    At a minimum this exercise will protect you in the future. You laid out the true cost of their directive, and they chose it anyway.

    1. Engineer Girl*

      I’m adding another link (Sorry Alison) Here is a short paper by McConnell that explains the types of debt nicely:

      Another thing you should do is create a risk assessment and a risk burn down plan. Identify key risks that would keep the project from success. tie those risks in with specific deliverables. Use preliminary deliverables too for early warning. Once your risks are tied to your schedule you’ll get an early warning trigger. This will help you in your documentation of poor performing employee. Also mitigate the risks and recovery plans.

    2. Troutwaxer*

      This is very intelligent thinking. Lay it out in an email (or print it out as a document) and send it up the chain. And make sure you have copies!!

  37. Milton Waddams*

    It sounds like the engineer became a deadwood employee somewhere along the way. Any idea how it happened?

  38. Greg*

    This is wrong, very wrong. IF it’s a 35000,000 project then others than just her will get fired if this fails. like that’s serious amount of money.

    They could have people working on the project write a statement outlining where they had to fix the coworker’s mistakes or handle stuff she should be dealing with and stuff like that.

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