should I re-hire an employee with a bad attitude?

A reader writes:

I briefly worked at a terrible company where I was brought in to help fix problems with a team that had been underperforming. Soon after I was hired, it became obvious to me that the company was a mess and I chose to move on after six months.

One person on my team — Joe — was very difficult from the day we met. He was combative, rude, and insubordinate, and our entire time working together was a game of chicken, wherein he was daring me to fire him while making it clear that, for political reasons, he was sure that I did not have the power to do so (he was basically correct). He had been there for several years, by his own admission had hated it the entire time, and yet seemed content to stay and be a thorn in the side of every manager he had rather than move on or attempt to fix the issue.

This former company became insolvent and my current company is in the process of purchasing it. It will be under my management once the transaction closes. Most other competent people from the old company have already left, and so Joe is one of the few with any institutional knowledge — and this company was so mismanaged that a lot of key information is likely missing from the documentation that we’ll receive.

Normally, I’d want to hire someone from the former company to help us make sure the takeover is successful, and Joe is the logical option — the other people who are still there are either too junior or incompetent. Joe has made it clear that he would not accept a contractor position — it is regular full-time employment or nothing.

Several peers from my current company have been pressuring me to give Joe a shot. But none of them knew him previously, and right now he’s on good behavior because he really wants a job with us. Part of me agrees that we need him, but I’m hesitant to bring in someone who I know has a chronic attitude problem and who has stated in the past that he has no respect for me as a leader.

This feels like a no-win scenario. If I refuse to hire him and the transition goes poorly, people will say it was reckless not to bring Joe on. But if I hire him and he’s the complete jerk that I’ve seen him to be in the past, I will be severely distracted by dealing with a nasty, disrespectful employee who is a master of toeing the line in a way that makes him very hard to fire. What should I do?

I answer this question over at Inc. today, where I’m revisiting letters that have been buried in the archives here from years ago (and sometimes updating/expanding my answers to them). You can read it here.

{ 168 comments… read them below }

  1. Daffy Duck*

    Don’t, don’t, don’t hire Joe. Even if he holds the keys to the treasury it isn’t worth it. You will chase away good employees who do know about his abrasive personality and he will be difficult with everyone else.

    1. My username is Anonymous*

      Agreed. This isn’t about a disagreement Joe with you on one particular issue – his underlying personality is not going to change.

    2. Artemesia*

      Absolutely — and don’t pull your punches in discussing why with your new company management. Try to identify a couple of good people from the old company who could do short term contract work as consultants to help fill in missing blanks — or cope as you would if this employee had dropped dead over the weekend.

      Someone who openly taunted your inability to fire them? Wow. Never let a toxic jerk like that onto your team.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I would make really beyond a shadow of a doubt clear to your company that Joe did this when you both worked together. That sort of behavior is just beyond the pale and a reasonable and functional company will never import that sort of work cancer.

    3. MusicWithRocksIn*

      I would really see if you can tempt back someone who has already left the company. Find someone that was an asset, and see if you can’t get them a really good offer and some reassurance that things will be different now.

      1. calonkat*

        What MusicWithRocksIn said. Or if there is no one, then just pretend that Joe was hit by a bus. If he knows he’s being hired for the knowledge, what are the odds that he will train anyone else and not hoard all the key information for as long as possible, being as unpleasant as he can be the entire time?!

        1. Amaranth*

          This. If he knows you’re hiring him despite his attitude because he’s indispensable, he has no motivation to change his attitude OR effectively train anyone else.

    4. Frenchie Too*

      Joe most likely contributed to the problems in the previous company. Maybe word it as “From personal experience and frustration, I know that people like Joe contributed greatly to that company’s problems. It makes no sense to bring him along to help perpetuate those problems. We can surely find better qualified people with as much knowledge and better work and personal ethics.”

    5. Ms. Ann Thropy*

      True. OP can teach a decent employee what s/he needs to know, but will never change JOe. Don’t hire him.

    6. Momma Bear*

      I was once hired specifically to clean up the mess a disgruntled employee left. As in, he destroyed disks and literally threw hardcopies into the air. It was a FT job for an entire summer to get it all sorted and plug the holes, but even then it was worth it to them to hire me vs taking the guy back.

      Will there be holes? Sure. But I bet you’d rather have holes to work through with good people than have Joe leave landmines for you and continue to play “chicken” as you described, knowing that institutional knowledge is what you are really after. There is nothing keeping Joe from withholding information if he feels like it. IMO, hire the competent-if-new ones and let Joe keep walking.

      Also, you could consider digging around in LinkedIn and finding other old employees and hire them as consultants as/where needed. You do not need Joe as much as your peers think you need Joe.

    7. willow for now*

      Agreed. If Joe learned all this institutional knowledge, then someone else can, too. It’s not like only one person can hold the knowledge.

  2. Kimmy Schmidt*

    I’m a little alarmed by this line – “the other people who are still there are either too junior or incompetent”. There are people here more incompetent than Joe? Joe is the best option?! If that’s truly the case, I think you’d be best to cut your losses and bring on all new staff. Some institutional knowledge might be lost, but that could happen for lots of reasons anyway, and a fresh start with qualified people sounds like a way better plan to me.

      1. Daffy Duck*

        There are lots of people out there that can move widgets. If Joe was abducted by little green men in a saucer there would be someone to replace him in a week. Most of them would be easier to work with.

        1. Cat Tree*

          Sometimes people like this hoard their widget knowledge and make it sound much harder than it actually is. Joe is probably easier to replace than he seems.

          1. BeenThereOG*

            This this this this this this. Joe is probably the guy who hands out broken fishing rods and tells management he taught the person how to fish.

        2. twocents*

          I was specifically responding to someone questioning Joe’s competence. He may be extremely competent, but still an unlikable jerk. See also: House.

    1. Code Monkey, the SQL*

      This! If the knowledge of the way the business was previously run is so very bound up in one person’s memory that nobody else available knows it, then surely other folks have found workarounds, even if they are junior.

      And more incompetent than Joe? How can someone be more actively impedimental to the function of the business than the way he acted previously?

      Let the knowledge be lost. It’s far better than bringing on someone who at best will only be passively sabotaging you.

    2. Dagny*

      Strongly agree. A lot of the literature (actual research, backed up by professionals in this area) say that if a department is completely dysfunctional so that all the good people leave, your ONLY option is to nuke it from orbit Otherwise, the remaining dysfunctional people screw up what you’re trying to do with your new team. Think of dysfunction like an infection and it makes sense.

    3. Mr Jingles*

      When I read stuff like that I always wonder how valuable his ‘unstitutional knowledge’ is anyways.
      If he’s a bad employee his knowledge is more likely of the kind that cements bad procedure which would have better been forgotten.

      1. AskJeeves*

        This was probably a typo, but I actually love “unstitutional knowledge” in this situation. Even if Joe is the most versed in the business, odds are LW won’t be able to make effective use of his knowledge, because his attitude is awful and he’s contemptuous of management.

  3. Enough*

    Don’t remember this letter but would love an update on whole purchase and incorporation of the company.

    1. Littorally*

      I did remember the letter from the first time around, but I’d still love to hear an update about how it all went!

      1. Observer*

        That’s not really an update, just some extra information. What I’d really like to know is if she hired Joe and what happened from there.

        1. Batty Twerp*

          She was at least considering third party consultants and someone (anyone?) else from the old company instead.
          I read her additional comments about the gender issues surrounding Joe’s attitude and approach to her current colleagues with my jaw on the floor – seriously, I have a rug burn on my chin from this. I’m adding my voice to the request for an update from Jane (her username in the comments)

          1. Observer*

            Joe sounded like trouble with a capital T.

            I hope they just hired an outside consultant and that she was greatly successful!

  4. Sanity Lost*

    I’m disappointed I cant read this without buying a subscription to a magazine I never read outside of AAM.

      1. anonanonie*

        At least indicate it’s behind a paywell–so new users don’t waste their time clicking through as it’s not always obvious it’s a paywalled article/site (since you always indicate when you’re getting a kickback from amazon for links, this is no different).

        1. GigglyPuff*

          Because you get a certain amount free. And honestly if all you’re reading is AAM, like me, you’re very unlikely to run up against your monthly free limit. I think I’ve hit it like twice. And I can’t explain it well but in my opinion there’s a difference between sponsoring a product as an advertiser and linking to your paid work.

        2. Sigh*

          Not the same: she doesn’t get paid per click to the publication’s site. There’s no kickback for her if you click or if you subscribe.

          And including a clarification like “This link goes to a site that allows you to read a certain number of free articles per month, after which there is a paywall, so it is possible that you will click the link and not be able to access the article” wastes twice as much time for every reader as a click and “Oh, rats” wastes for a few of them. I “waste” my time this way periodically here, and I’ve survived so far.

        3. JSPA*

          You’re only paywalled if you’ve clicked over several times before, fairly recently, in which case, you’ve in theory already seen their big banners telling you you’re almost out of free articles.

          Someone has a moment of wishing they could have something for free that they cannot, in fact, have? That’s one of life’s constants, no?

          Yes, there are still places where data plans limited, and clicking to a page that you can’t then load uses up valuable data. So I guess in that circumstance, it’s more important to be aware of one’s surroundings. Like not breathing through your nose when you walk past the donut shop, if you don’t want to be tempted by the smell of donuts.

            1. anonanonie*

              Removed. Please move on, as I asked above. We’re not going to debate this every week. I’m closing this sub-thread, which I should have done from the start. – Alison

    1. Kimmy Schmidt*

      This subscription is how writers like Alison get paid. There is oodles of free content on this website that you don’t have to click off to read.

      1. Juneybug*

        And I am so glad about this site being free!! But honestly, I think we all agree that if Alison charged us a fee, we would gladly pay due to the wonderful content.

    2. Arctic*

      I’m disappointed I can’t drink that latte from Starbucks without paying for it.

      Let’s all sure life’s disappointments.

    3. Hogsmeade AirBNB*

      I’m disappointed that I have to keep reading these kinds of comments. This is how writers are paid for their hard work!

    4. KateM*

      Or, if you see that it is “revisiting”, search the site for the original. (Plus it sometimes has updates or OP chiming in.)

      1. Yvette*

        It usually has almost the same name. You can also find updates by searching “update” followed by title. But my favorite thing is the “Surprise Me”.

    5. Madtown Maven*

      Removed. Please do not post ways to get around paywalls here. This is how writers get paid for their work. – Alison

    6. Aglaia761*

      No one ever died of disappointment…You’ll be ok.

      Also it’s 2021, you know how to get around a paywall if you really want to.

  5. Jenny*

    I wonder how clear LW has been about Joe’s past behavior. That needs to be made clear to the people pressuring the hire.

    But 100% do not hire Joe.

    1. KathyW*

      Agree but it’s very difficult when you are dealing with an employee who is able to switch to “good behavior” effectively. The other people have only known Joe as a presumably a competent, knowledgeable, and genial employee so it may be difficult to reconcile that with what OP is telling them. It’s a tough situation.

      1. Threeve*

        If you plainly explain “Joe literally did/said exactly this,” and your peers and subordinates are willing to think you are straight-up lying, you have bigger problems at your company than having one controversial hiring decision hanging over your head.

    2. Massmatt*

      I agree, don’t hire nasty Joe, and make sure you present a strong case about it and be proactive with alternatives. Make sure you stick to facts and exactly how he was terrible so it’s not dismissed as a “personality clash”.

      I don’t get how people like this wind up being untouchable, and am very skeptical of his “institutional knowledge”. This company failed, he was no doubt at least partially a reason for its failure, and HE is the best remaining employee there? Sounds like going out of the way to ingest toxicity and dysfunction to me. When someone offers you poison, don’t drink it.

      1. Zweisatz*

        Also when all the good employees leave, eventually a bad employee will be “the best” who is left.

  6. Kittymommy*

    Don’t, don’t, don’t hire Joe. It will not end well and he will not be different. When people tell you who they are, believe them.

  7. Arctic*

    I do think sometimes bad attitudes can be situational. Like the letter from the person who punched a co-worker. Objectively, yeah don’t hire/rehire someone who punches people. Duh. But the context made it clear that the environment had just so warped her sense of norms that it wasn’t as out there as it seems. People feed off of the energy of the organization and co-workers.

    But this isn’t that. Whether the “dare to fire” thing was literal or figurative (and it seems literal) this is not someone you ever want to have work for you.

    1. The Vulture*

      I think you may be thinking of the biting coworker. Which, I have to say, feels objectively more wrong and yet objectively more mitigated by understanding the context. By which I mean, biting a coworker seems worse, but after context/understanding, biting seems more like, okay, you were in a wild situation, versus punching is like, but still! You punched someone! Just me?

      1. Seeking Second Childhood*

        I just checked google… there have been at least 3 punch coworker letters (with one update). And one extremely memorable bite-coworker letter (and update).

    2. Allison*

      Truth. I was fired for having a bad attitude about 8 years ago, but part of that was due to a) being profoundly unhappy at that company and b) not having the skills to cope with the situation, because it was my first “real” job out of college. And I know that I’m not entitled to a second chance with anyone I worked with directly at that job, but I’d like to think that if I applied to a job one of my old coworkers worked at now, they wouldn’t necessarily be like “oh don’t hire her, I worked with her 8 years ago and she was super unpleasant,” but maybe instead say “oh yeah I worked with her years ago, she was a little rough around the edges back then, but maybe she’s turned things around.” Because I have. Not only have I had some great experiences at other companies that made me really love this line of work, I’ve also developed better ways to handle workplace issues.

      1. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

        A bad attitude in a first job doesn’t count the same as having a bad attitude when more experienced like Joe. It also really depends on what the ‘bad attitude’ is. If it’s a matter of not having adapted to workplace norms, I’d presume they’d grown past it if they’d managed to since stay employed in their chosen profession. But if it’s a matter of being a generally crappy human in a way that’s more personality-based and unlikely to change, that’s a different thing and I wouldn’t rehire.

        But to Arctic’s point about situational bad attitudes, I think it’s hard to separate the toxic workplace from the people who were toxic in it. Despite understanding the reasons why they were the way they were, I wouldn’t ever want to work with those people again.

    3. BRR*

      I’ve experienced this. My last job was awful and I know I didn’t always have a good attitude and I saw good people quickly deteriorate. However I still think don’t re-hire Joe. The LW doesn’t identify anything that points to it being the situation and no the employee.

      1. Self Employed*

        Yeah, when I clicked through I was half-expecting it to be a tale of Joe reacting to a bad situation where it’s plausible he’d behave differently in a good environment. Nope, unfortunately.

  8. EngineerDE*

    My experience is that institutional knowledge can be overvalued. If you have the right people, they will find a way to get things done, and the ways they find may be better since they aren’t invested in maintaining the status quo. Institutional knowledge will gain you a reduced timeline and you may be able to make a tradeoff by planning in additional time to fill in the gaps. My company lost a number of experienced, very good key employees after we were acquired and it surprised me how well it went. It helped that my company hired experienced people from the outside instead of promoting from within. Not that there is anything wrong with that, but it was the right choice in our circumstances.

    1. Louise*

      I was part of a merger and the people with the ‘institutional knowledge’ that came with the company weren’t really that helpful. I actually had more success explaining we recently acquired company x and I need help with y then going to the team that was brought with the merger. Granted I wasn’t dealing directly with the acquisition in legal or taxes, but was tasked with mundane tasks like transferring accounts, getting copies of contracts, updating contacts, etc. Few vendors batted an eye and with a little background customers were overwhelmingly understanding. (And those that weren’t seemed to be problem customers that you probably didn’t want anyway.)

    2. Delta Delta*

      I was thinking the same thing. It also seems like in this situation it makes sense for the buying company to require the insolvent company to document everything in an effort to avoid some of the “institutional knowledge” things. If the information is so key, it’ll be documented. If it’s not that key, it’ll either be re-learned (and documented) or disregarded and replaced with something new by the new company.

      This is also a way certain people make their “worth” known, by hoarding information. I once worked with someone who fancied herself the keeper of the information and didn’t make notes of things that might be helpful (nothing earth shattering, but things like it’s best to call the office supply delivery place on Thursday morning – stuff like that). She eventually left for a new job. When she left, it took very little time to reacquire this knowledge and document for others.

    3. EPLawyer*

      “My experience is that institutional knowledge can be overvalued. ”

      If the knowledge these people have was so great, why is the company insolvent? OP you left because it was completely mismanaged. Soooooo what people know is how NOT to run a company. Why would you bring that on board.

      Especially why would you bring someone on board who WAS PART OF THE PROBLEM OF MISMANAGEMENT? If it was someone who was just caught in a bad situation and maybe acted liked they didn’t give a damn, came in late, left early, that sort of thing, maybe. But someone who was ACTIVELY PART OF THE PROBLEM with the previous company — knew he was part of the problem and ENJOYED IT??? One you played the politics game rather than DO HIS JOB??? Oh hell no.

      This has disaster written all over it.
      If you are going to be running the company, you need the freedom to run it YOUR way, not Joe’s way.

      1. Massmatt*

        This! “institutional knowledge” might be overrated in general, but it’s doubly so when the “institution” involved is a failed company. Why replicate failure?

        1. Self Employed*

          When my boss was fired in a tiny department of a large institution, where we were isolated from the rest of the organization, it turned out one of the reasons they let her go was that she had trained me wrong and I had been doing things wrong the whole time I was there.

      2. There's probably a cat meme to describe it*

        Hard +1 here!

        All they’ll do is bring their bad practices and toxicity into the new company and lord their ‘institutional knowledge’ over you as justification for insubordination and outright refusal to adapt to the new company’s practices. BTDT.

        I would rather work stupidly long hours to make up the gap in the interim. At least I know that’s only a short term pain.

    4. Sales Geek*

      One thing I’ve seen in my (former) customer set was that “institutional knowledge” is something that is predicated on having an institution to back it up You don’t get one without the other. And the unstated goal of any institution is to keep itself in power (or in management or simply employed).

      One of my customers (a regional retail chain I won’t name) had this problem in spades. Their operations staff was top-heavy and chock full of employee groups that supported old/outdated technology that prevented them from moving to modern platforms that would support the goals of the business. They went through five (yes, five!) CIOs over a period of six years. Each would trumpet the changes needed to modernize and align the tech with the company’s business goals. All failed until the next-to-the last CIO who literally fired three entire levels of management and some of the worker bees. It was only then that they could move forward.

      And no, I wouldn’t hire Joe. The cost of having to corral a potentially toxic worker is too high and in this situation it’s sadly predictable where things will end if he is hired.

    5. Sariel*

      “The squeeze isn’t worth the juice.” That’s what I thought when I read OP’s post. There are other ways to get to the institutional knowledge, and bringing someone who is this unpleasant on to a team that is trying to move forward will be counterproductive. And, it involves a lot of time that would be better spent on other people.

    6. Cat Tree*

      I’ve worked in various places with untouchable knowledge-hoarders, but one place was especially bad with three firefighting superstars (nevermind that they were usually putting out fires that they had started themselves). Plenty of people were annoyed and just resigned to the fact that they couldn’t be fired, or even handled undelicately lest they get offended and leave. I always thought this view was silly.

      If the knowledge hoarders won the lottery and all quit the next day, would we just shut down the equipment, lock the front door, and abandon the business forever? Would the CEO shrug his shoulders and say we had a good run but it’s over now? Of course not. We’d bring in some competent people and pay them to figure that out. Since the company will have to do that someday anyway when the knowledge hoarders retire or die, why not just do it right now?

  9. Hogsmeade AirBNB*

    Short answer: No.
    Long answer: NNNOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    1. TPS reporter*

      exactly? Always the answer when you think you should get back together with an ex. nope nope nope

  10. Vaca*

    Why not hire him, get what you need, and then fire him? Might be worth it just to see the look on his face.

    1. Trek*

      I don’t OP will get what she needs. I think he will hold things back, give partial answers, and dig in to make himself appear even more valuable and OP will be left with needing Joe and needing to fire Joe. He may be difficult but not stupid and realize that once she has what she needs he’s gone.

      1. Marthooh*

        My first thought was what Vaca said, and my second thought was this. Expect him to suck up to the C-suite, too.

      2. Average Joe*

        As a Joe, I can tell you that Trek is right. If you were to hire me, despite how much of an ass I was in our previous roles, then I know I hold the power advantage. The manipulation that follows would be obscene.

    2. NerdyKris*

      For starters, it would make LW look vindictive and give people the impression that they can lose their jobs at any moment. Even knowing the background I’d still feel like my job wasn’t secure in that scenario.

      And what happens if he turns down jobs so he can take this one? That’s cruel and potentially opening LW up to legal liability if he knows they were intending to fire him in month or so after he turned down other positions.

      If I knew someone was hiring a person just to fire them shortly after, I’d reconsider that person’s suitability for a management position.

      1. Massmatt*

        ??? In what jurisdiction would hiring someone and planning to fire them later be illegal or actionable? In the US at least, most people are at-will employees that can be fired at any time, for any reason.

        I wouldn’t ordinarily advocate it, but it does have a ring of poetic justice after his earlier virtually taunting her about her inability to fire him.

        1. NerdyKris*

          He might have a case for Promissory Estoppel if they convince him to turn down a job when they only planned to keep him around a month or so. The same thing can happen if an employer convinces someone to relocate and then pulls the offer. “At will” isn’t absolute. Causing an employee monetary damages can result in having to make them whole again.

    3. TootsNYC*

      huge risk of not being able to fire him. Many companies are reluctant to fire people without having gone through PIPs, etc., etc.
      Plus you have to put up with him in the meantime.

  11. Cobol*

    In sort of defence of Joe. It could be that Joe was doing what he needed to keep his job at the company. OP was trying to make (needed) changes to the organization, but in toxic environments there tends to be trenches and tribes.
    Joe sounds like he was honest with the letter writer, and may not be bad in the new environment.

    1. Peter Piper Picked a Peck of Pickled Peppers*

      “combative, rude, and insubordinate, and our entire time working together was a game of chicken, wherein he was daring me to fire him while making it clear that, for political reasons, he was sure that I did not have the power to do so”

      That doesn’t equal “honest” to me. He sounds like an absolute nightmare of an employee.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        Well, he was honest in a way – honestly a pot stirrer who had no intentions of turning it around.

      2. Cobol*

        Just an example. Letter writer wants X changed (where x should be changed) Joe knows that if he changes X VP Bob, who is entrenched and political, will flip his stuff, and push Joe out. Joe tells Letter Writer he won’t do that.

        Again, it’s only a sort of defense of Joe, but to survive in a toxic environment, you usually have to be toxic yourself.

    2. Surly*

      I’ve been Joe before — where my department was so awful that I became pretty awful too, as a defence mechanism. I needed someone to take a chance on me and treat me decently, and then I was a great employee.

      But I think even if Joe were hired, the LW isn’t the right supervisor for him to work under. If he’s capable of changing, better for him to find a job where he can have a fresh start. It would be too hard to separate out their past relationship, I think. I needed a clean break before I could see my coworkers as colleagues rather than threats again.

    3. LQ*

      Then Joe could recognize that and say, “Yup, and I realize that and I’d be willing to do a contractor position for 1 year.” Essentially to demonstrate that he’s not so entrenched in the behavior it won’t change. Since he’s said he will only do it if OP ties themselves forever to the dead weight of Joe then nope. That’s the key that indicates it’s not a one time thing to me. This is someone who plans to be shitty forever and knows they way they get away with it is by being an employee that people don’t want to fire. Don’t do it.

    4. I Wrote This in the Bathroom*

      Nahhh. There is a reason why Joe is the only one left with any knowledge of the old company’s business. Two possible reasons, in fact.

      1) Everyone else left because they got tired of working with Joe.
      2) There was a mass exodus where everyone who could, left. Joe stayed because he could not find anything else.

      1. Cobol*

        According to LW the whole organization was toxic. So people left because of the org, not specifically Joe.

        3) There was a benefit to the job for Joe (pay, hours, commute) that outweighed the bad for Joe

    5. meyer lemon*

      Even if you give Joe the (very generous) benefit of the doubt that he might do better in a less toxic environment, I don’t think that working under the same manager who he was combative with and has no respect for is going to work any better this time around.

    6. Massmatt*

      Studies show that 9 out of 10 a-holes describe their awful behavior as “honest” when in fact they are usually the opposite.

  12. PolarVortex*

    People with Institutional Knowledge tend to also be Change Adverse anyhow, even without the history and problems of Joe. At least in my experience they sometimes have the greatest reasons to not want things to change, since they are then the Gatekeepers of Knowledge. They parlay this into capital they can then hold over others, and use it to make themselves seem more important/valuable. Or they are too busy dealing with Thing You Do Not Understand About This Archaic Thing to do anything else in their job.

    And I speak as one of the institutional knowledge people at my company. But I’m one of the people who wants to burn the broken things to the ground and not be the go to person for a dozen archaic things. I have seen my forbearers though, and I judge them on not getting rid of this crap sooner.

    1. Brownie*

      OH. Utter moment of clarity, you’ve just described the major blocking-of-progress people that I’m having to deal with right now, the majority of whom have been in this job for 20+ years. This will really help me to deal with (or bypass) them to improve workflows and modernize. And yes, right there with you on the burn all the broken things to the ground, it’s more work in the extreme short term, but over our normal software time spans it would still save so much time, both for us and for customers.

      1. PolarVortex*

        Quite honestly, the easiest way to go around them is to find someone who is very logic based higher up the food chain, and just mention the flawed process. Generally it gives them such a WTF whiplash that suddenly you’re in half a dozen meetings about why does this process exist as is and what can we do to fix it.

        (Alternatively, you teach yourself the bad thing that nobody knows, and then they have no excuse because you’ve come up with a way to reduce a 40 hour a week “job” to 2 hours a week task just by the magic of being competent.)

    2. TootsNYC*

      I also am an Institutional Knowledge person at my company, and though I don’t think I am Change Averse, I do end up slowing things down if I pipe up and say, “In the past, we did X.” I get SEEN as change averse, even if all I’m trying to do is alert people to a problem they might need to solve in th new system they’re proposing.

      1. AKchic*

        At my last place, I was Institutional Knowledge. I got that way because I made it a point to pick the brains of everyone who would let me. I didn’t hold a high role (I was a receptionist who got promoted to a newly-created program assistant position, then they added new PA positions and I ended up the “senior PA”).

        I was given a lot of random tasks. Jobs that c-suite directors were “too busy” or “too important” to do? Yeah, it got dropped on my desk. Old manuals, binders, etc.? Came to me for some reason. I ended up taking over the records keeping, even though I’d had no formal training. Then one of the directors jobs got retasked and it became their job again, but I still did the actual work, they just oversaw that portion of my job. So then storing old non-finance stuff fell under that purview too. We moved to electronic medical records and my direct supervisor was dragging his feet. Not sure why, but I have ideas. He blamed me for the delays saying I was change adverse. I was never consulted. The IT director knew I wasn’t consulted, wasn’t in the meetings, and was looking forward to the changes (it would make my job easier).

        Eventually, I left. Changes are still slow there, but it’s not me that’s being blamed. It’s just the system that enables the drag.

      2. Dust Bunny*

        Also an institutional knowledge person here, but if I say, “We used to do [thing],” it’s usually to explain why something doesn’t make sense in our current situation. The only times I’ve pushed back on changing something in a proposed direction is if the change would make my job significantly more difficult for little discernible improvement in output.

  13. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

    If you’re running a professional sports team, hire Joe but pay him 100% salary, no signing bonus.

    Assuming you’re not running a professional sports team, don’t worry about Joe. Interview him if he applies–perhaps the place was super-toxic and time away has allowed him to reboot his personality. Judge that as impartially as you can. But don’t seek him out or woo him. There will be someone else who can do for you what he could.

  14. singlemaltgirl*

    i had a person kinda like joe – holding all the institutional knowledge. didn’t quite have as the negative attitude but we were never going to move forward as an org. and they would hoard info that they felt maintained their job security. and they held a key role in the org (think of head of financial everything). i tried really hard to build trust, to bring her onside with the changes i was making, to support her in her role. but i was spending 60% of my energies on managing this one employee who i felt i couldn’t fire b/c of the institutional knowledge she had. you know what? after almost 18 months of pain and frustration, i finally fired her (long standing employee so it was expensive) and we hired someone else externally. within 2 months my new hire had cleaned up shit i’d been trying to work on for over a year and i was finally able to spend focus and energy on the other things that needed doing. best thing i ever did. i was ruled by fear in keeping that other person but you know what? all the energy spent on managing joe could be spent on working with a new person who will work with you and not against you. and you’ll get more accomplished than you think.

  15. MissDisplaced*

    I think your gut instinct is telling you not to hire Joe, and I’d say your instinct is correct.

    To be fair: It may not have been all Joe’s fault if the company was so mismanaged. That’s enough to drive anyone insane and make personality issues much worse. But I guarantee even excusing for some of that, it won’t make Joe any easier to deal with, or make you like working with him again.

  16. Mrs. Hawiggins*

    “Joes” are the reason I have left good jobs. I should not have had to leave them, but with “Joe” around a good job became so miserable it was the only choice. So aside from not hiring him for obvious reasons, he may wind up and be the only employee you have left, and wait til that opportunity comes up. “What are you gonna do, fire me?”

  17. Just Another HR Pro*

    Is there any chance that his behavior was in response to the environment? I am not sure that in this situation I would advise you to give a chance, but often times people either acclimate to a toxic work culture, or combat it and leave.

    Just wondering….

    1. Rusty Shackelford*

      I expected that, before I read the letter. But it sounds like if the environment did change Joe, it might have changed him permanently.

  18. JohannaCabal*

    Do NOT hire Joe. You’re better off hiring the junior staff and training them to the level you need. They probably also have more knowledge than you think (likely being afraid to speak up because of Joe and upper management).

    Also, in my experience, “institutional knowledge” can be overrated (after all, the previous company became insolvent–from what it sounds like, institutional knowledge might be a barrier to success).

  19. Where’s the Orchestra?*

    I would advise going to management and being really factual and honest about the fact I worked with Joe in the past, it was extremely bad for factual reasons 1 through 7 (etc), and I do not think any institutional knowledge he may have would outweigh the issues he represented in the past.

    1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

      Thought of this right after I pressed post: if Joe was at all a part of why you left this company in under a year make that very abundantly clear to your management as well.

  20. Mental Lentil*

    It looks like that institutional knowledge ran the old organization into the ground. It sounds better to start from scratch and that means starting without Joe.

  21. PollyQ*

    In response to the argument, “But we NEEEED Joe’s knowledge!” I would say this: Ask yourself what you would do if Joe were absolutely totally unavailable for whatever reason. Then do that instead of hiring him.

      1. Sabine the Very Mean*

        Yep. I don’t feel he’s the type to come to work after coming into a windfall of cash. In fact it seems he would pay to sabotage.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          But is Joe coming into a windfall of cash? The owners may well be but Joe sounds like a full of himself worker bee, not the queen.

      2. twocents*

        We usually say “what if they win the lottery” because it sounds a little less death wishy, lol.

        1. Massmatt*

          I see no reason for the LW not to feel death-wishy about Joe.

          And Death-wishy is my new favorite phrase.

    1. Amaranth*

      I think the only way I could possibly hire Joe is if he’s told upfront that he is there to train others, and to help transition to new processes as needed. If his attitude is good and he does good work, he will have a job, but if he hoards knowledge or shows the kind of attitude he had at x, he will not be retained. And then I’d probably want someone else to be his direct supervisor.

  22. RC Rascal*

    I am on team Don’t Hire Joe.

    That said if you are going to need to for political reasons he gets a contract only. The fact he has stated he will only accept full time employment is ABSOLUTELY IRRELEVANT. Joe doesn’t get to call the shots here. It’s called negotiation and there is no reason you can’t put a 3 month contract in front of him and say “ Take it or leave it.” You are in the drivers seat here , not Joe.

    I also agree that institutional knowledge is overrated.

    1. Sola Lingua Bona Lingua Mortua Est*

      Offer him the contract–an 8 hour contract with a recurring mutual option for an additional 8 hours at the same rate. Just don’t call it “At will employment.”

  23. Noncompliance Officer*

    Has anyone ever had any success rehiring an employee with a bad attitude? A couple years ago we interviewed someone who had moved to a sister agency. They had a history of interpersonal conflict with their coworkers. They applied for a new position at our agency, and during the interview we asked her to talk about a time she had a conflict with a coworker and how she resolved it. She immediately launched into a story about how on her first day (!) at the sister agency, she had a huge argument with a new coworker.

    When she finished this tirade, we asked, “And how did you resolve the conflict?”

    “Oh, I never talked to her again.”

    1. Akcipitrokulo*


      What is even more worrying is that she said it at an interview! Which means either

      – she genuinely sees this as an appropriate and professional way to behave

      – she really, really doesn’t want to work for you!

    2. Public Sector Manager*

      I had an employee who bordered from average to pretty good in the work output department, but had a toxic personality. I was able to work effectively with this employee, but it was a lot of work. This employee wanted a transfer to another division in our agency that has a rotation policy, so there is always an opening and we usually filled it with an existing employee. This employee had been turned down multiple times for a transfer.

      My boss was also in charge of this other division. I advocated for my employee to get the transfer because once you got beyond their personality, they definitely added value, and they should be given a chance. Also, we were setting ourselves up for an age discrimination lawsuit because the my employee was over 40 and every time, a much younger employee with less experience got the transfer.

      The employee lasted less than 18 months. Despite being given a great opportunity to put the bad attitude behind them and start new, the bad attitude continued in the new division and it became toxic.

      Based on that, unless an employee with a bad attitude really expresses a sincere desire to change, I wouldn’t ever hire them back.

  24. West*

    Please don’t hire Joe. It’s just going to cause problems down the road. As it has been said many times, one bad apple spoils the bunch. All it takes is one employee to bring the entire team down. Pretty soon, you are going to have a team of unhappy employees whose productivity and quality of work will suffer. You can bet a lot will even quit, which causes another problem: turnover. Is this what you want to deal with?

    If not, hire someone else and start from scratch. It may result in a slower start in the short term, but in the long term, it will pay off and everyone will be better off.

  25. disconnect*

    I had to work with a guy like this right out of college. It was 18 months of dealing with his anger and refusal to do any work and demeaning behavior (like, he would set his password to obscenities so that he could spell them out when the HR/IT person needed them to do updates) but “there was nothing anyone could do, he knew the system so they had to keep him around”. Then he quit, I apparently knew enough so they didn’t have to replace him, and they gladly gave me a $1500 salary bump after a few months. JFC I think back to how much of a dumpster fire that was, and OP, don’t put anyone else in that position. Unless this guy has come up to you and apologized for his actions, owned his behavior, and manages to convince you that he will do better, he doesn’t deserve this opportunity.

  26. Quinalla*

    Do not hire him and explain why to everyone. Institutional knowledge can be valuable, but if he is the one guy who has it, how do you think this will go? Him lording it over everyone and trickling the knowledge out as sloooowly as possible to retain his value – no thanks. You are better off starting fresh or bringing on a more recent hire who might have some knowledge and actually be eager to share.

    1. irene adler*

      Exactly! Joe is never going to spill what he knows. This ‘regular full-time or nothing’ shows that he thinks he can keep his job for the long-term. And he’ll try to do that by ‘trickling’ the essential info as slowly as he can.

      Better to establish new procedures without Joe. Sure, it will be painful in the short-term, but better in the long term.

      1. Bob*

        This is a very good point. He will only dribble out the minimum and use it as leverage to be a bigger douche than before.

      2. Hare under the moon with a silver spoon*


        Unless Joe has mastered cold fusion, no institutional knowledge is worth that much.

  27. Dust Bunny*

    Dear gods, no, do not rehire this guy.

    One of my bosses took over from a very nice lady who kept everything in her head, so we basically had no documentation for anything. He spent the next couple of years piecing it all back together. It was a pain in the rear.

    But he did it. You can rebuild this without hiring a guy who will make it all worse.

    Also: If he’s this big a nuisance just think how he might be when he knows he has something you want. The only thing worse than a thorn in the side is a thorn in the side on a power trip. And do you even know that he has information you can use? Or would you end up rehiring him for very little payoff in institutional knowledge?

    It’s not worth it. Let him go and get your documentation some other way.

  28. New Mom*

    OP, I hope you update us with what happens. I agree with others that you know how Joe is, and you can’t teach or train a good attitude. If you have not already, please meet with the powers that be a calmly provide examples of how Joe has a history of bad attitude and insubordination and how that will likely translate to him not providing them with all the institutional knowledge you need anyway. Also, this sounds like it would be a temporary position anyway because once the institutional knowledge was transferred you’d just be stuck with him anyway.
    Does your current company trust your judgment? Have you complained about other people or tried to block other hires? Hopefully, they will understand that Joe would not be a good fit. And if they still bulldoze it through I think he should come in with a temporary contract stating if he does not meet x, y, and z consistently his employment will be ended.

  29. Random Autistic Person*

    Do you really “need” him, though? However good he may be at the specific tasks of his job, if he doesn’t respect authority and refuses to work unless it’s on his own terms, I question how beneficial his presence would actually be. As an employee, I’d be seriously put-off if I had to work with someone like that, and even more so if I found out my manager knew he was like that but hired him anyway.

  30. Bob*

    My instinct is to say don’t hire Joe. Even if he cooperates its likely to be malicious compliance.

    That said what information does he have that is so critical? It is possible as Alison says to hire him and keep him on a short leash. But this is fraught with minefields, beyond the malicious compliance if he decides to friend someone who has some sway he might try to turn them against you (or his firing). People who are trouble are surprisingly resourceful in finding ways to protect themselves from consequences of their actions and if he were to be hit by a bus or win the lottery or whatever that were to end his employment what would happen then?
    Alison has made a very good point over the years that no one should be irreplaceable because life happens and people move on to other jobs or move to other cities or countries or for whatever reason move on from your company.
    If he somehow has critical information find a way to extract or rebuild it, from his computer use (many companies log everything an employee does online) to his company e-mail to purchase receipts to whatever you got. Even if you have to pay someone to reconstruct the data its worth not having a insubordinate leech on your team.

  31. Sara without an H*

    Add me to the list of those saying that “institutional knowledge” is over-rated. I’ve managed a couple of “Joes,” both of whom left on short notice. (One walked off the job, the other was fired.) Neither left anything in the way of documentation.

    Rather than try to recreate their systems, I decided to just start over and figure out how I wanted those job duties covered going forward. It was really much less work than trying to piece together how “Joe” would have done it.

    Admittedly, I work in a field where “institutional knowledge” becomes obsolete every time the technology changes. But if the old company was that badly run, knowledge of how it was run badly doesn’t seem all that valuable.

  32. Esmeralda*

    Don’t do it!!!

    Consider this: can you even trust what he says — how good is his institutional knowledge?

    What would you do if you didn’t have his inst. knowledge? You’d figure something out, right? That’s the direction I’d go.

    At most, you might offer him a very short term consultancy to get at the institutional knowledge, and make sure you can terminate it easily so you’re not stuck throwing money at this sack of poison. He doesn’t want to do that? Well, that’s his choice.

    1. Bob*

      “you might offer him a very short term consultancy to get at the institutional knowledge, and make sure you can terminate it easily so you’re not stuck throwing money at this sack of poison. He doesn’t want to do that? Well, that’s his choice.”
      This is a somewhat better way through the problem, a bit better of both worlds, if the OP is going to get internal flak for not hiring the guy then offer him a short term contractor position.
      If he doesn’t take it (which he claims he won’t but >50% chance he will) then its on Joe and not the OP when dealing with internal politics either way “I offered him contract to get his knowledge without causing the same issues that helped the company fail last time”.

      I still say don’t do this, Joe will pretend to be nice and probably backstab or won’t release the knowledge or just a dribble so that he can’t be gotten rid of. If he ingratiates himself then the OP gets pressure to hire him full time then back to square one.
      But if somehow he is the only resource and the universe will collapse without him (exceptionally unlikely) then this is the best of the worst ways to deal with clueless bigwigs. Though frankly I would instead argue that he was one of the many reasons the company failed in the first place.

      I hope the OP sends Alison an update on what ultimately happened in the future.

    2. Khatul Madame*

      If you must…
      Make the contract statement of work to generate detailed documentation on the institutional knowledge. Describe exactly what should be included, like “a spreadsheet that lists the name, condition and location (aisle, shelf, drawer number) where every body is buried”. Specify the timelines of when the drafts are to be submitted. Do not extend the contract if draft documentation is not submitted on the stated date.

  33. Anonymous Hippo*

    I haven’t read the article yet, but DO NOT hire this guy. If his knowledge really is irreplaceable (I doubt) then maybe a short term consultant position, but honestly I wouldn’t bother. And if the company was that mismanaged do you really want any of their “expertise”.

  34. Cobol*

    According to LW the whole organization was toxic. So people left because of the org, not specifically Joe.

    3) There was a benefit to the job for Joe (pay, hours, commute) that outweighed the bad for Joe

  35. Dagny*

    Why do you assume that he has valuable institutional knowledge? Most people I know like that are complete train wrecks; their work is terrible and the new hire spends months if not years uncovering and fixing mistakes.

  36. voyager1*

    Since there have been quite a few update questions regarding this letter. Do you request updates from these LWs (where you pull a letter form years ago) at the end of the year?

    I too am curious how this ended myself… but this if from 2017 originally.

  37. Soylent Minority*

    How valuable is the institutional knowledge if the enterprise sank? And how much of what might really be valuable is this joe gonna bring if he was as disruptive and negative as you depict? Doesn’t sound like he was particularly interested in policies and procedures when he was there….

  38. Krabby*

    Just going to outline my very recent experience with this where we had an absolutely teeeeerrible manager, Joaquin, who had been with us for 15 years. I’d spent so long trying to tell anyone who would listen that Joaquin was a disaster who had been specifically named in almost every exit interview I’d conducted with his team since I started (and there were a lot). He finally quit on his own and HIS managers panicked, as well as a lot of stakeholders in his department. “Oh no,” they said, “all of our systems will break. No one knows our systems like Joaquin does. Everything will surely break and our clients will all leave!” So they made me draw up an absolutely ludicrous contractor agreement that had him on call for one day a week for the next two months at exorbitant cost to us.

    Well, his contract just ended and they used him for, literally, three hours. Turns out his knowledge wasn’t so irreplaceable after all.

  39. Not One of the Bronte Sisters*

    I agree with everyone here. Joe is a multi-vehicle pileup and the acquired company is a dumpster fire.

  40. Des*

    Good God, no. Do not hire him. This is the biggest of red flags waving in your face, ignore it at your peril.

  41. Petunia*

    Let’s look at this from Joes perspective: he was rude, combative and insubordinate and you both know it. So you bringing him back is pretty much admitting that he remains untouchable because he has all the knowledge. So you can expect him to continue being rude, combative and insubordinate. Since sharing the knowledge will decrease his power, I can’t see him training others or sharing information.

    Is it possible to reach out to competant employees who left relatively recently and ask them to consult for a few hours/make a job offer if you really need it?

    1. EmmaPoet*

      This. You know he was awful. The odds of him magically being not awful are very bad, especially because you saw how he behaved last time when he was treated as unfireable. He’s not suddenly going to be a good employee, especially when he’s seen as really valuable.

      No institutional knowledge is worth the viper in your bosom that Joe would be.

    1. staceyizme*

      Oops! If he was bad before, what would be different now? And what does “give it a shot” mean, in this context? Honestly, there’s no upside to hiring him. If you really ARE in a “no-win” situation, you might as well pick the least painful path forward and forgo a bad rehire.

  42. cncx*

    when he said he wouldn’t work as a contractor…he knows how he is. That’s combative and a power play right there.

    being a contractor would be the obvious solution but again he is playing politics.

  43. Sun Tzu*

    Do. Not. Hire. Joe.
    For God’s sake, don’t.

    “He had been there for several years, by his own admission had hated it the entire time, and yet seemed content to stay”

    Ah, I know the type of person. In my old job, the guy managing me (an asshole, a bully and a control freak to nightmarish levels) kept saying that he wanted to find an0ther job, not seeing himself doing this for all his life, blah blah. Ten years later, he’s still working there. Of course. He was the favourite of the boss, which let him do anything he wanted. In any other job, he would have been fired pretty quickly.

  44. Secret Squirrel*

    We’ve got a Joe. I am so tired of hearing the grandboss say I need to show him grace for his bad behavior and temper tantrums. Our guy is the grandboss’ favorite, too. If you hire Joe, you’re probably going to lose your other employees. Is he really worth it?

  45. Workfromhome*

    Institutional knowledge often comes with institutional dysfunction. This place had a toxic culture. The fact that Joe survived so long shows that he was deeply ingrained and supportive of that toxic culture. Nothing will short circuit a culture reset than a Joe. New people will listen to him because of his experience. He’ll say I’ve been here for 15 years and this is how it was done” soon enough new people absorb that toxic culture and you are right back where you started

  46. ceiswyn*

    I learned this one at my first job. There was a guy there who was ‘unfireable’ despite his attitude and other problems, because he was the ‘genius’ who had built various bits of core tech and was the only one who understood how they worked.

    So everyone tiptoed around him for years, and… then he up and left. So we had to deal with the loss of all his so-called expertise anyway, only he’d built a lot more stuff so the problem was a lot bigger than if he’d been fired when his issues first became apparent.

    It’s never worth it.

  47. Safely Retired*

    If you get the assurances from management that they are behind you if you need to fire this jerk, and you plan on doing going ahead with Joe despite everything, I strongly suggest that, as part of making the job offer, you lay it on the line with Joe. Point out all the problems you experienced with him before. Don’t listen to excuses and objections he offers, make it clear that what your past experience with him is what it was, not subject to change or persuasion. Tell him why you would have fired him before, and why he was able to keep the job before, and that none of that applies any more. Make it clear that if he still wants the job he is starting with two strikes against him. Make it clear what you expect of him: to share his institutional knowledge, and to loose the attitude and behavior.

    In other words, if you can’t talk yourself out of making this mistake, maybe you can talk Joe out of letting you make it.

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