update: my employee warned me he has a problem with authority

It’s “where are you now?” month at Ask a Manager, and all December I’m running updates from people who had their letters here answered in the past.

Remember the letter-writer whose employee warned her on her first day that he “has a problem with authority”? Here’s the update.

I wish I had started reading AAM years before and been better prepared, but I credit what I’ve learned here and also having some more years of experience with getting the situation to this point. Fergus’ issue with authority showed itself by obfuscating information, only answering direct questions instead of trying to understand what a person may be trying to ask but doesn’t quite understand, ignoring directives to adjust business processes, or coming up with vague reasons why that wouldn’t work but not ever providing concrete examples of anything. He also made snide comments about my appearance occasionally under the vein of ‘we’re friends, I was just joking’ and this was all with a layer of argumentativeness on top that was exhausting. I guess Fergus might say he preferred to work independently, but he was not open to allowing anyone to understand what he did or ask questions. A power hoarder who invented processes to endear himself to those who relied on his work but that to a more trained eye were outdated and ridiculous wastes of time.

Fergus was let go 6 months ago. About 3 years in, I shifted from tip-toeing around Fergus to holding him accountable for very specific behaviors. It makes perfect sense, but I credit AAM with helping me learn that through and through. Reading about the crazy stuff some managers deal with and having a place to commiserate was nice. It made it easier to focus on what work expectations weren’t being met when I was at work, rather than looking around for colleagues to say “This is bonkers!”

To his credit, the attitude and confrontations stopped once I addressed this a couple of times with him, though it did take my supervisor backing me up and saying “Actually Fergus, what you’re doing right now arguing is the exact behavior that needs to stop.” With that out of the way, there was far less distracting behavior to hide that Fergus was not actually very good at his job. I had known that for a while, but it took me first addressing his behavior before upper management saw that. Previously they just thought it was “Fergus being Fergus” and never had the bandwidth to work around his attitude to dig more. With the attitude gone, his frequent mistakes and failure to follow directions really had no place to hide. I feel like that’s a reverse of what normally happens, where it feels easier to address tangible work output than more nuanced attitude issues, but this is just how the situation ended up working out.

Because we are in government, and a global pandemic, the process from initial formal write-ups to severing ties with Fergus was approximately 22 months. It was a long process and one I still can’t believe I made it through. I would not have made it through without the support of my own manager, who validated me when I had doubts and apologized that something hadn’t been done sooner. I had some usual guilt as the decision to fire him drew near, asking myself if I had done enough. This is where his initial attitude towards me really did him a disservice. I acknowledge that had he not led off with the statement about a problem with authority, and followed it up with behavior that affirmed that, that I might have been more patient in dealing with the true work mistakes I witnessed. That’s an important takeaway for me. Dealing with items head on as soon as possible might make the difference later in ways I don’t anticipate. But ultimately, Fergus was no longer able to do the job he was hired to do and these conversations should have begun before I even started.

{ 113 comments… read them below }

  1. Yellow*

    “A power hoarder who invented processes to endear himself to those who relied on his work but that to a more trained eye were outdated and ridiculous wastes of time.”– This is EXACTLY what was toxic about my old job, that I was never able to figure out a way to say. Thank you for it.

    1. Artemesia*

      I consulted with an organization that was held hostage by someone like this who had built a rube goldberg set of computerized processes that meant far more work than just using an appropriate software — and he piled in on top of old fashioned paper back ups. He had everyone cowed, that this was ‘just so complicated’ and only he could save the day — and the day often required saving when his systems crashed. My first step was cross training so he wasn’t the only person who knew how to make the system work. Ultimately he was let go and the place functioned a lot better. People like this can convince those who don’t work with the material day to day that it is much more complex than it is.

      1. Sleeping Late Every Day*

        Did we work together? That describes my old department head exactly. It took the organization over a quarter of a century to catch on and dump him.

        1. quill*

          I think it starts when someone clings to an old system and it slowly snowballs into a mousetrap-esque sequence of breakable little plastic pieces that no one has assembled in the correct order

      2. Chauncy Gardener*

        Exactly! And if someone keeps telling you how complicated everything is and they’re the only ones who know how it all works, that should be your first sign that this dude is obfuscating his processes to give him undeserved job security

      3. GlowCloud*

        >>People like this can convince those who don’t work with the material day to day that it is much more complex than it is.<<

        Like the tailors who are busy weaving the Emperor's invisible new clothes?

      4. Candi*

        I remember a story (NAR, I think) where this guy had originally programmed his company’s system from the ground up, and had everyone convinced that it was insanely complex and no one but him could make it work.

        When he was sacked for jerkglassery, he offered to continue helping with the system at an outrageous consultancy rate. (Outrageous by even the joking suggestions offered in the AAM comments from time to time.)

        Shot himself in the foot. The company already(!) decided it was cheaper to bring in a couple consultants to go through the code, create what document was needed, and teach others how to use the system.

        Turned out only around a third of the code was actually necessary. The rest was either making processes more complex than they needed to be and could be replaced with simpler code, or was commented-out code that the guy had replaced, but never removed. (My theory is he left it because it made the code look more difficult and complex to the casual viewer.)

        And surprise, there were no comments whatsoever on the code. So documentation was fun.

        The whole thing really sounded like the company took Jamie’s advice in the post “how to fire an I.T. director who has passwords to everything”, in spirit even if they never read it.

    2. NerdyKris*

      I’ve never met anyone who hoards information to make themselves irreplaceable who was good at their job. And most of the time the information they were hoarding wasn’t that difficult to replace.

      1. Ama*

        I got accused of hoarding info once — but the accuser was actually the one who hoarded info and was also not very good at his job. It also very much backfired because I’d been at that job long enough that my colleagues responded to that with “huh? Ama does nothing but try to share info whenever possible.” And it ended up being one of the early red flags that made people stop giving him the benefit of the doubt as a relatively new employee and start paying closer attention the the fact that he constantly looked busy but never seemed to actually accomplish anything. He did, in fact get fired about 9 months later.

    3. lailaaaaah*

      Oh god, yeah. My old manager was like this- our whole team was snarled up in endless paperwork and feeling burnt out constantly, even though if we’d streamlined the processes we’d have done a lot better. But she wanted her eyes to be on ALLL the details. Every single one.

    4. WantonSeedStitch*

      Whoa. Yeah. This is actually a really apt description of someone I used to work with. That person did, to their credit, have a lot of knowledge and was very good about helping other folks in the office when that knowledge was needed, but…they really fought to make it seem like the work they did was something without which our entire department would fall apart. When they left, we changed our processes, and things are so much more efficient now.

    1. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

      Definitely. I work in an industry that’s kinda government funded and has the red tape to prove it – it would take a long amount of months to fire someone for that kind of attitude.

      I’d still do it. The paperwork is a chore though.

  2. Pinkmask*

    This is completely impressive. I cannot believe how long it took to get from Point A to Point B, but it seems to have been worth it! I really do not understand why government positions make this process take longer. It seems like the government is exactly where you’d want to get rid of problem people quickly.

    1. Heidi*

      It’s too bad the OP can’t list, “Got toxic employee fired from a federal job” as one of their work accomplishments. It’s so difficult, time-consuming, and has such an impact on the quality of the work, I feel like it should be acknowledged somehow.

      1. Madeleine Matilda*

        She could list it as successfully navigating complex government human resources policies to effect manage team and address performance issues.

    2. Florida Fan 15*

      I’ve worked in state government for 20 years and, at my agency, it’s a combination of being HUGELY conflict-avoidant (we might end up in the news!), fear of being sued, and dread of trying to hire a replacement since we can’t pay for squat.

      I had an employee who we wanted to fire. One of many problem things he did was work his cases through completion and the only thing he had to do was give them to admin to mail. Did he have them mailed? No. He put them in his desk drawer. The only way we’d know is if we tossed the desk like cops with a warrant once a month.

      It took 2.5 years and a documentation as thick as a collegiate dictionary to get rid of him. I’ve joked for years that the only guaranteed way to get fired is embezzlement, piss off the wrong politico, or get caught watching porn on company time more than once.

      1. Windchime*

        We had a guy get caught watching porn in a wiring closet on a borrowed VCR (yes, this was awhile back) *with his pants down* and he wasn’t fired. Not a government job, either, just a wimpy boss.

        1. Mockingjay*

          I work with someone who got caught watching porn on his government computer. He wasn’t fired. He successfully argued that since the agency had no specific rule banning porn on devices (it really didn’t – everyone assumed a rule was already in place and never checked), he didn’t break any rules.

          A policy was issued after his reinstatement.

          1. Berkeleyfarm*

            In my county agency, a number of people got disciplined for sending around racist/sexist etc. “jokes” to a wide and unwilling audience from their work emails. Some of them got terminated.

            The union did argue that they hadn’t officially been told not to. (I hope nobody really said it was ok to do so, but …)

            I did work in a private company in the earlier days of the WWW where someone was downloading porn all day on his work computer, the sysadmins knew exactly who, the coworkers constantly complained because it killed the tiny bandwidth to their building, and it continued because management hadn’t created and pushed through an Acceptable Use Policy.

            1. AstralDebris*

              Ahh, the good ol’ Air Bud defense. The wacky hijinks people use it for are never as fun in real life as they were in the movies.

            2. Candi*

              I would think the -ist “jokes” would be covered by “we’re a government department, we are definitely covered and must obey anything regulated by the EEOC.” The union representative sounds disingenuous in the context of breaking actual law.

              There’s a NAW story of a small business where the boss wasn’t firing a receptionist who was not doing her job -she mostly stayed on Facebook on day. Boss agreed she needed to go, but explained to his IT guy he didn’t want to take the unemployment hit.

              The IT guy got permission to block Facebook at the company. Then set things up to look like he was Really Busy.

              Up comes the admin and claims she can’t access something she needs for work. IT asks what the specific problem is. Of course she can’t say what it is, since it’s not work. IT tells her to either tell him what the problem is or leave him to work.

              She was gone two days later.

              What I like there is blocking Facebook, except maybe on the devices used by the social media team in a larger company, is a perfectly understandable and even routine thing to do. And the IT guy at least seems smart enough to tell the boss ages ago to document that she wasn’t doing her work.

      2. Keymaster of Gozer (she/her)*

        Famous story at our place: a senior engineer had a really really bad argument with his boss at one of the depots and came into work later that night and took a dump on the manager’s desk. This was caught on camera. The guy didn’t lose his job.

        So any thread about firing on the company forums turns into ‘what did they do that was worse than pooing on a desk?’.

        1. Candi*

          I swear, if I’m ever (I hope not) in a management position, I’m going to be prepared with a “deposited a biological hazard” in my list of things I’ll actually write people up for, all thanks to this site and NAR.

    3. Moss*

      It’s also to protect people from being fired for ideological/retaliatory reasons that aren’t job-related. As someone who’s had their job threatened for political reasons of all kinds, it’s a trade off I’m OK with.

      1. Prefer my pets*

        There may be a lot of frustrations with it, but honestly every single federal office I’ve worked in had at least one person who was fired for performance issues and the 18 months those took on average were well worth the trade-off of managers NOT being able to fire the minorities, women, lbgqt+, the person who called out unethical behavior on that part, the person the manager didn’t like because they were from Boston & the accent drove him nuts, etc.

      2. lailaaaaah*

        Yep. Having worked in a government dept, they were v willing to fire disabled, female, older, POC etc. employees, but the white men much less so. The policies in place evened things out a little

        (Albeit not entirely- I still had to secretly go into the application history of a (again white, male) manager who’d previously been fired for punching a colleague in the face in public and add a note about the incident. The hiring manager really wanted to hire him back, but I knew he wouldn’t be able to if there was evidence that the candidate had behaved like that.)

    4. Anon Fed Employee*

      It’s not that you cannot fire a federal employee – it’s that there is a very specific process that must be followed to fire an employee. The process carries by agency, with agencies with a higher percentage of political appointees having a much more specific and detailed process (the rationale is that you want to prevent a changing of political appointees from destroying the careers of the behind the scenes folks).
      What I have seen in practice is that the process makes some people act like they are untouchable because the supervisor is conflict adverse or not willing to do the documentation necessary to remove the problem employee. It is more than possible to remove the problem employee – you just have to be willing to document the problems.

      1. Archie Goodwin*

        I also understand, from a couple of friends who are supervisors of one sort or another, that oftentimes the people they want to fire are VERY good at drawing out the process to maximum length. For instance – got 90 days to respond to something? Wait until day 89 to provide a response.

        1. Anon Fed Employee*

          Oh yes – I saw that happen once this year. We eventually did get this guy gone – but he resigned instead of being fired. He was marked as “Not Eligible for Rehire Ever” though, so it was at least a partial victory.

          1. Archie Goodwin*

            And that’s the trick. You can eventually get rid of the problem performer, but you have to be willing to put in the work.

            Fortunately, the supervisors I know are people I know socially and not professionally, so I can buy them a drink or ten to give them some solace along the way. :-)

            1. Anon Fed Employee*

              Guy probably shouldn’t ever have been hired – wasn’t at all good at his responsibilities. What did him in was being seen by a manager he didn’t see deliberately blowing cigarette smoke into a younger female employees face, while standing directly under a “No Smoking” sign during the middle of the Delta variant surge in our state. He was going to be gone after that – there was no coming back from that action – and he resigned ten minutes before the “you’re fired” conversation started.

              Work is a lot easier now without having to clean up after his seemingly endless mistakes as well (even though he hasn’t formally been replaced yet).

              1. allathian*

                Ugh. I’m so glad that smoking indoors in public spaces is prohibited. The ban is taken so much for granted that I can’t remember when I last saw a “No smoking” sign indoors. They’re fairly common outdoors, though, especially near the entrances of public buildings.

    5. Velawciraptor*

      There’s usually a collective bargaining agreement you’re dealing with, which means that the employee has certain procedural rights that have to be respected. And even without a CBA, there can be due process rights that attach to government employment. In any case, it requires clear and consistent documentation, and that can be harder than it sounds. I’ve had to start over PIPs due to an interim meeting being insufficiently documented. It’s a process, but it’s a process you can learn and do well with if you’re ready to put in the work.

      And it’s a process that leaves you with the comfort of knowing you haven’t been unfair or unreasonable, because you have extensive documentation of the issues and your attempts to resolve them right there.

    6. BatManDan*

      When you realize that government exists only to justify its continued existence, then these processes make more sense. Perfect example of why “more government” is never the answer.

      1. Mad Harry Crewe*

        I actually really like roads, and public libraries, and building code that means I can trust that my apartment won’t collapse on my head. It’s neat. I would like more of the kind of government that guarantees healthcare and equal human rights to all inhabitants. Many major governments are a shambles right now, but that is not a reflection on the process of democratic governance, only on our particular political systems and entrenched and self-reinforcing power structures and inequalities.

        1. mlem*

          The current system’s state is also what happens when the past 40 years have been spent trying to rip it to shreds.

          Thank you for pushing back on the prior comment.

        2. Jackalope*

          I’d also add things like safe drinking water, sewage and garbage disposal, monitoring food to make sure it’s not contaminated, making sure medications are at least likely to help rather than kill you… any time you have a large number of humans living together you have to come up with some way to deal with these kinds of issues, and whatever you come up with is some form of government. Some definitely work better than others but that doesn’t mean the whole idea should be thrown out.

          1. La Triviata*

            I once heard that every regulation is written in blood. Industries, groups, etc., are allowed to regulate themselves until something awful happens and then the regulations are created.

      2. Ace in the Hole*

        That’s a rather inflammatory and extreme position. Especially since none of this is unique to government, it applies to any workplace with decent employee protections and civil rights.

        The documentation and clear process exist for a very good reason: to prevent favoritism, nepotism, and discrimination. Frankly, if it’s not worth the effort to document the justification for firing someone and how you have attempted to resolve the issue… they don’t really deserve to be fired.

        1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

          From what I have seen (several family members work for the federal government) the part that tends to have the ball dropped the most is “steps by management” to improve the employees performance. Sometimes that step is unnecessary (Fergus is being written up for continuing to send derogatory emails after being warned to stop, Jane is constantly receiving warnings to not harass the Junior staff) but other times it is very necessary (Billy is struggling to learn the new incident tracking software the agency is now using, Lisel hasn’t been given the updated programs list for the division so can’t answer questions about capability or capacity). Situation one doesn’t need as many employees assists to fix – it just requires the offending employee to stop. Situation two on the other hand involves training shortfalls – getting training classes/workshops for new software, organizing a share drive better so program lists can be found, creating how to guides that all employees can use to help themselves improve their knowledge of a process/program/resource. If you’ve done the work and documented it rigorously for the second scenario then yes – it’s a performance issue that should lead to PIPs and termination if the person just can’t do the job. But termination shouldn’t always be step one – if it’s an honest training/knowledge shortfall.

      3. jiggle mouse*

        I’m actually kinda glad that a supervisor with an axe to grind can’t fire me because of my sexual orientation or views on bodily autonomy for women.
        We actually do need more government, given the rampant public endangerment by mask/vaxholes. We need regulations to rein in money-hoarding profiteers who ruin our planet and health with harmful practices.
        But you know all that. If you live in America, you already make use of all manner of government services.

      4. A Feast of Fools*

        This comment is the equivalent of going to dinner at the home of someone who brags about being a good cook and everything tastes like garlic.

        Main dish? All you can taste is garlic. Side dishes? Garlic. Crafted cocktails? Garlic. Dessert? Garlic.

        There are some dishes where lots of garlic make sense, but it’s not the secret cooking weapon that will make every single food item taste fantastic.

      5. Fikly*

        Sure. Go ahead and opt out. You don’t get roads, fire fighters, ambulances, military protection, any medication, food, shall I go on?

      6. lailaaaaah*

        There’s a reason humanity started forming governments as soon as large groups of us started living together- you need a structure in place to keep everyone together and make sure things work okay. And now, when there are so many threats to our continued collective existence (disease, pollution, climate change, violent -isms and -phobias, etc.) government is absolutely needed.

      7. Mr. Tyzik*

        “All right, but apart from the sanitation, medicine, educations, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the fresh water system, and public health….What have the Romans ever done for us?”

      8. Candi*

        “More government” may not be the answer to all problems, but “properly applied” government is the answer to a lot of them.

        The problem in the end is always about humans, the dark-minded who use positions, processes, and procedures for their own selfish and immediate gain; that’s the primary problem with private business as well. Such behavior and lack of consideration for others, especially in the abstract, has a cascading effect that hurts the lowest tier workers most, regardless of where they work.

        One of the benefits of the turmoil created by covid is the ability to use the disturbance to change things and hopefully create a more caring culture.

    7. retired3*

      Civil service was developed to change the system where everyone was fired when a new administration came in. We used to call the appointed higher ups “the Christmas help.” It gives stability to government so there isn’t constantly a turnover of partisan people (ideally). I was a state govt manager and I fired people. It just takes a process (also realizing how bad our HR was by reading AAM).

      1. Archie Goodwin*

        Putting in a plug for my guy Chester Arthur, who was instrumental in seeing that reform through.

        Seriously – probably my favorite underrated American president, and not just because of his amazing facial hair. :-)

      2. LizM*

        Yup, I’ve seen federal managers afraid to discipline employees because they misunderstand the process, but I’ve also seen federal employees (including myself) be protected from political whims of a new administration.

        It’s easy to blame federal processes for keeping bad employees in place, but how many letters does Alison get from the private sector where management doesn’t want to deal with it? You can fire federal employees, you just have to go through the process. And it protects the good employees, who are the ones who know how to keep the lights on while the new appointees are still trying to find their desk.

    8. All I got was a watch*

      Totally impressive. It takes so much paperwork and hoop jumping. But I think the one thing that no one ever mentions as far as documentation goes, is that you aren’t just documenting how the person failed at their job but everything you’ve done as a manager to improve the employee. Procedure manuals, internal/external training, coaching by other employees. All of it has to to be provided to your HR.

      1. Where’s the Orchestra?*

        I said this above – most of the time this is as much a part of the process as what the employee needs to do. There are rare things where it’s all behavioral (as in harassing, belittling, feeling that rules are for everyone else) – those I don’t think require as much “documentation of training and resources that the manager is providing” because it comes down to offending employee just needs to stop.

  3. The Smiling Pug*

    Sounds like an absolutely frightening rollercoaster, OP. And the fact that these are government positions…yeesh…

    1. fposte*

      If it’s the poster I think it may be, it’s not representative or federal government, but it’s still subject to a lot of bureaucracy. And if it’s the poster I think it may be, I am so, so pleased that Fergus is history.

  4. TootsNYC*

    It takes longer than in private industry, often, but you can too fire someone who works for the government. You just have to be willing to put in the work.
    The importance of good managers, and supporting good managers.

    as a taxpayer, I say: Thank you for your service.

    1. Public Sector Manager*

      I’d say the 22 months the OP mentioned is not a pandemic length of time, but a traditional “just how long it takes” to deal with a civil service employee (at least in my state and in my experience). Any public sector manager needs to do it though–it was amazing to see my teams output and enthusiasm once all the bad apples on our team were gone!

    2. pancakes*

      There’s no one here who isn’t also a taxpayer. It’s really, really silly to speak as if doing something absolutely everyone does one way or another confers some special status or standing.

  5. Fedpants*

    As a peer to a Fergus, and a manager of a different Fergus in the government, knowing the documentation can work gives me hope.

  6. Jessica*

    Somewhere out there is a talented, qualified, hard-working person who deserves this job and will be great at it, conduct themselves professionally, and be a pleasure to work with. Perhaps you’ve already found and hired them, but in any case, it’s great to know that the opportunity is now there for them.

  7. Observer*

    Wow! That sounds like it was a really difficult situation to deal with. And I’m sad that you ultimately needed to firer Fergus.

    BUT. I am glad that you did it. That you had the patience and fortitude to hold fast, recognize what was happening and do the hard work involved. I suspect that the rest of your team is really, really glad as well.

  8. digitalnative-ish*

    “Previously they just thought it was ‘Fergus being Fergus’ and never had the bandwidth to work around his attitude to dig more.”

    Sounds like former toxic boss. Oh the things you find out once the attitude is gone. So glad he’s gone OP, and mega congratulations for seeing that process through.

  9. Quickbeam*

    It’s so hard to take a breath and realize you need to fire someone. It’s also a lot of work, you end up needing a really delayed gratification/long range improvement outlook to survive it. Congratulations on a huge success!

  10. I WORKED on a Hellmouth*

    Into the sun this man goes. I’m so glad you managed to get this resolved and get the bad apple off of your team! Dealing with it all sounds exhausting, and the fact that you actually managed your employee instead of taking the path of least resistance is something you should be really proud of.

  11. Former Gifted Kid*

    On one hand, I get why government makes these process so long and drawn out. There is such a long history of corruption in government and people using government jobs to pay their friends or supporters. There needs to be a lot of checks in the system to make sure someone is a qualified hire or actually deserves to be fired.

    On the other hand, it is infuriating in practice. My partner works in government. He had a coworker who straight up did not do his job (claimed he didn’t know how to do it even though he had been in that position for ten years! As if that was an excuse!). It took years of sustained effort on the part of his manager to actually fire the guy. He is gone now, thankfully, but it was a slog.

    1. doreen*

      As a government manager, I’m sure it was a slog. But it’s also likely that the manager’s predecessors were more to blame than the actual policies. The people I had to put in the most effort to discipline and/or terminate did not suddenly become problems when I was assigned to their office – they were problems from when they first started at my agency , ten or even twenty years before I took over their location . And they could have been easily terminated when they were on probation – but the longer the problem is tolerated, the harder the process becomes. Partly because you can’t just immediately fire someone for ten years of poor attendance/punctuality/poor performance if the issue was never addressed before ( you will have to go through all the steps as if the most recent incident was the first) – but also because of the attitude I get , which is best described as ” Who does this bitch think she is expecting me to get to work on time to answer the phones – nobody has minded me coming in two hours late for the last ten years.”

      1. LizM*

        Yes. It’s super common for managers to know there is an issue, but to not do anything about it. A new manager comes in, sees there is an issue, hears from the person’s coworkers that there has been an issue for years, but all of the documentation is just years of satisfactory-to-good performance evaluations, so the new manager basically has to start building the documentation from scratch, often with a CBA that outlines a progressive discipline process.

      2. EmmaPoet*

        Exactly. The previous manager let stuff slide, then the new manager comes in and sees the problem, but has to work step by step to deal with it because the probationary period is long over. They can’t just say, “Fergus has habitually been an hour late for three years and doesn’t do half his work, he’s gone.” They have to start from scratch and build a case.

      3. Berkeleyfarm*

        Used to work in county government … I was actually not civil service and we had high turnover in our group because we had a vindictive manager. (My old job is now civil service – classifications caught up.) We did work with a lot of people whose attitude was similar to your last statement.

        I still remember one incident where there was a problem with the mainframe (sep group) that caused knock-on effects to our main website (which was on a server our group ran). Our group was called at 1 am when the alerts for the website went off and was yelled at pretty constantly by a lot of people until the first of the mainframe people finally rolled in at 10 am. Their manager was totally protecting them.

        After that they did get told they had to have coverage for core business hours and oncall. Most of them retired when the manager did.

    1. Chilipepper Attitude*

      Maybe he brought the good rolls to functions and the higher-ups liked him more than the guy who brought cheap ass rolls.
      We have Grammarly at our workplace. It told me to hyphenate higher-ups but not cheap-ass.

      1. Not Tom, Just Petty*

        Why would your company disrespect you with a cheap-ass grammar program like that? :)

  12. turquoisecow*

    Bravo to you, OP. I’ve worked with a lot of people like Fergus and read too many stories here about people like Fergus and too often the ending is “I want to let him go but I can’t,” or “management acknowledges he’s a problem but can’t/won’t do anything about it.” It was so so satisfying to read this story.

  13. tamarack & fireweed*

    One thing I learned here is to be wary about behaviors classified as personality traits or styles being in reality smokescreens to hide incompetence. “He’s not very good at his job” sounds so much more pathetic than “he’s got a strong personality” or even “he’s an annoying asshole”.

  14. C in the Hood*

    So basically, the attitude was really just smoke & mirrors to hide the real problem! This is a really good example to remember when someone just looks like they’re copping an attitude.

  15. CatPerson*

    He: “I have a problem with authority.”

    I: “Is that so? Well, I have a problem with insubordination. Guess who wins?”

    1. allathian*

      Thanks for the giggle. But yeah, that’s just about the only reasonable answer to that statement.

  16. Arifault*

    That last paragraph brought a smile to my face, especially with LW mentioning they were able to learn and grow as a manager – it reads as wholesome to me despite the struggle. I’m very glad that things seemed to end about as well as they could have. (save for Fergus)

  17. Penelope Pitstop*

    As a govt employee, this gives me hope. The prevailing ‘wisdom’ in my agency is that once someone goes on a PIP they just have to perform well enough to outlast the PIP and then they can go back to being terrible, outlast the next PIP, and so on. As long as they can outlast each PIP, they stay one step ahead and the final step of termination can’t happen because technically the employee is successfully completing the PIP. Not sure if this is actually true (it sounds super fishy, but I have been unpleasantly surprised before), but it is such a widespread belief that I think it keeps managers from putting any real effort into trying to address behavioral problems.

    1. Prefer my pets*

      It’s not at all true. I’ve worked for 3 different federal agencies, have close friends in a couple additional ones with similar missions, for pushing 3 decades. IF, and this is a big if, you properly document absolutely everything and follow the steps it takes 12-18 months to fire for poor performance even in union offices with them dragging it out. If they do anything egregious, you can drastically shorten that.

      The key is that it is a lot of work, you can’t miss steps, and you have to have support from above. Frankly, not all that different from any other large organization. How often do you hear about people complaining about the person management chooses to ignore in private? Every day! My dear friend and I compared how hard it would be for each of us to fire our respective frustration employees and it would be easier for me…she works for a large accounting firm. I choose not to because it would take a year to backfill and this is a super undesirable area to live in so I’m unlikely to get anyone better willing to relocate.

  18. Slow Gin Lizz*

    I sure hope you had a wonderful celebratory dinner the day he was finally fired. Or better yet, a celebratory week-long vacation to a tropical island far away from pandemic issues. Congratulations, OP, on getting rid of that guy.

  19. Waving not Drowning (not Drowning not Waving)*

    We had a Fergus in our department, hoarding of work, sexist, racist (but when called out on this he was give the good old “only joking” line) He was able to get away with things for nearly 8 years – a succession of reorganisations and bad HR advice meant that just as things were getting somewhere, a departmental head shuffle would happen, and HR would say the process needed to start again, so he’d be on his best behaviour for 6 months, then revert to type again.

    In the end it took evidence of illegal activity (forging medical certificates on work laptop) for HR to acknowledge there was a serious issue – even then it took 6 months of him being home on paid leave, HR then wanted him to return to work, and the whole department said hell no – he then getting a redundancy payout rather than actually terminating him. He was, however, marked as ineligible for rehire, so we took relief in that.

  20. MCMonkeyBean*

    OP, it sounds like you have learned a lot and really grown as a manger through all this! The fact that you were able to bring about such a significant change in attitude and behavior in that employee is very impressive. I do find it sad that it sounds like he put in some effort and had some growth as well but still lost his job–but it seems like that’s what really needed to happen and making those tough choices is certainly an important part of being a manager! (Especially for all the other people on the team who would benefit from a hopefully more competent replacement.)

  21. HolidayAmoeba*

    I work in government and those processes are a double edged sword. It can take a long time to get rid of a bad employee, but on the other hand, management needs to put the time, work and documentation in to give the employee clear direction about the issues and opportunities to improve.
    It also says a lot about Fergus that in the 22 months it took to get rid of him that he was not able to or did not look for another job. In my experience, there are very few people are truly bad at their jobs AND refuse to do anything about it . Often training, resources and good leadership make a huge difference in employee engagement and skill. And usually if the job just isn’t for them, they look elsewhere.

  22. La Triviata*

    I once worked with someone who was not that good (not terrible, but not especially good) who was convinced they were doing a terrific job, giving the organization the advantage of their knowledge and competence and hard work. They once exclaimed that they were bringing in a large amount of income … but never mentioned that, while they used their one one-hour course of marketing for sales, someone else had to process the paperwork and payments, enter the inventory information (which, since the person kept losing their files, meant doing the same updates, going back to the earlier information, re-entering the updates over and over … because no one would trust this person to do the entries because they weren’t detail oriented enough to do it correctly). Also never mentioned that the figure they cited was for gross income, not including the organization’s costs or the hourly pay for the people doing (and re-doing) the data entry.

  23. green beans*

    on the seeing the issues with work after dealing with the personality issues – I actually don’t think that’s as uncommon as you think. There were several people at my old job who had serious output/productivity issues. One was a very nice longtimer and the other was a garbage person who frequently yelled and threw tantrums to get what they want. For both of them, people had a really hard time seeing past the personality (she’s so nice, just overwhelmed!/what an a-hole) to the actual issues with their work. Which was frustrating because any time I tried to bring up the very real ways their lack of doing their actual jobs was impacting my work/the company, the conversation would immediately shift to their personalities.

  24. Dragon*

    Late arrival here. I totally get Ferguses who only answer questions asked, and/or don’t try to help questioners clarify what they’re trying to express.

    We had something go wrong once, and my boss was on the immediate hotseat trying to figure it out. Someone else had made the original arrangements, and of course he came in late the morning the thing fell apart.

    I got the impression that SomeoneElse had made a totally basic omission he shouldn’t have, but if he did his boss should have flagged it. But when I tried to diplomatically confirm it with my boss, he kept answering, “I don’t know.”

    Finally I asked, “What did SomeoneElse say when you asked him everything I just asked you?” My boss answered, “He doesn’t remember.”

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