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You Didn’t Pick Things Up Quickly Enough

by May 22, 2008

My friend was released after just 20 days on the job.

She was given work assignments to complete that had never been discussed in the interview. At her exit interview, her manager admitted he had overestimated her technical skills in the interview. She had not professed extensive technical skills in the interview. She was given no notice that she was to be terminated, just asked to come to the conference room at 3 pm on what turned out to be her last day.

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Reflecting back, she realized that there had been virtually no communication with her manager over her last three days leading up to her termination. What’s ironic is that she was actually getting a lot of work done then. She felt that she was finally just starting to get the hang of things.

This was during the time when her manager was probably meeting with HR to work out and finalize her termination. At the exit interview, she was told that she “didn’t pick things up quickly enough.”

My friend had asked lots of questions of her manager while employed there, particularly when given work that was beyond what had been discussed in the interview. But whenever she asked her boss about her assignments, he talked about other things and never really answered her questions.

When a manager says something like “you didn’t pick things up quickly enough,” this can also be seen to mean, “I didn’t take the time to manage you well.”

Especially with new hires, managers have to invest a lot of time in integrating the new employee. When a new piece of equipment is obtained for the office, there is often instruction in how to use that piece of equipment, at least for the person who is responsible for using it. We may even send the person to training in how to use the machine.

Sink or Swim?

We don’t seem to do that consistently with people. We throw them into situations and expect them to “sink or swim.” We cannot afford to have too many new hires sink. It just costs too much money.

It costs a manager something more than money to admit that he may not have managed the person in the way that they needed to be managed. He didn’t take the time to figure out how to motivate the person. He didn’t figure out how the new person learns best, through careful instruction or trial and error.

The cost is that the manager has to admit that he made a mistake. That he was wrong. It’s much easier to blame the now-terminated new hire:

  • “You didn’t pick things up fast enough.”
  • “You weren’t communicating enough.”
  • “You didn’t understand the culture here.”
  • “You were a bad fit.”

In all these cases, the common denominator may have been that the manager didn’t do a good enough job in interviewing the person or integrating the new hire into the workforce in the first weeks or months. In every case, the manager blamed the employee for what may have been the manager’s shortcoming.

Managing is hard work. It’s not intuitive. No one is born a manager. Some people are born leaders, but managing requires training and it takes time.

Good managers can be developed, but only if they are given the time to learn, also the same way new hires need time to develop.

Managers need to master a broad skill set to be effective in all phases of the role:

  • Understanding how the department operates so that the right mix of jobs is created.
  • Interviewing (which is so much more than just talking to people) to effectively determine whether candidates have the correct skill-match for the position.
  • Orienting the new hire to the workplace and to the job and his or her colleagues. Integrating a new hire takes weeks, not hours. Too frequently, managers leave orientation up to HR. No offense to HR, but new hires are too valuable to be trusted only to HR. The HR team has a critical role to play in integrating new employees, but the new hire is going to listen far more to what their new manager tells them than anything HR has to say.
  • Setting performance objectives so that the new hire clearly understands what is expected of him or her.
  • Giving feedback on an ongoing basis, not just at the end of the year in an anxiety-ridden performance evaluation.
  • Recognizing and rewarding people for their effort as well as for their accomplishments.

When you look at all the expectations that we have of managers, it’s easy to understand why we invest so much in management development and training. It takes time to become an effective manager. Anyone promoted to management generally figures this out in the first few days on the job.

The piece that too often gets overlooked is training our managers in people management. How to interview candidates, how to select the right ones who can be most productive in their environment, and how to continue to get the most out of them on the job. Managers need to learn how to engage their staff so they give their best effort on the job as opposed to just doing enough not to get fired.

The good news is we usually give new managers the time to figure out how to do their new job, in part because of all the time and money invested in developing this person to the point of promotion.

No doubt, this new manager would certainly be annoyed if after a few weeks in the new position, their manager called them into a conference room and started in with, “You’re not picking things up quickly enough.”

This article is provided for informational purposes only and is not intended to offer specific legal advice. You should consult your legal counsel regarding any threatened or pending litigation.

  • Steve Deighton

    Excellent article! What happened to your friend is far too common. The bottom line is the manager made a decision to hire without enough information. This hurt the manager, the company and definitely your friend. Had the manager established criteria to determine core competencies and used occupational assessments to determine personality fit, learning index and occupational interests, then the manager would have probably not hired her for that role. Your friend would have found a job more suitable to her level of expertise and her interests even if it was with someone else. What is very interesting is how the manager did not communicate with your friend and took the easy way out, which is termination. Hopefully that manager’s boss recognizes his/her manager needs training.

  • David Rees

    Not to put this to harshly because she is your friend, but nobody else knows her and we can’t make any assumptions.

    A few things jumped out to me as possible:

    1. Your friend was being terminated for a reason that has nothing to do with the stated reason. (the old ‘the real reason, plus the one that sounds good’). Out of everything I came up with, this sounds like the most likely. I could speculate but the reason could be anything from how she dresses, a client complaint or a rumor to the bosses realization that he does not have a shot at an office romance with her to an annoying habit, technical competence (real or imagined), etc.

    2. To let someone go that early in the process is very severe. Either the perceived problem was very severe or the manager felt they made a mistake or the manager is grossly incompetent in at least one key area.

    3. Sometimes the culture and environmental fit are just not there and this can contribute to poor performance. If an employee and manager have very different personality styles and values, they may find it nearly impossible to effectively communicate.

    At the end of the day, what ever your friend may or may not have done, she was treated poorly and unprofessionally. Sometimes it is best to just move on. You can’t always know what someone else was thinking or why they did what they did.

    As an afterthought, this is a good example of why you should go to your new boss with some objectives for the first 30, 90 and 180 days and discuss your progress.

    As yet another afterthoughts, her manager did not seem to be managing on results, but on his perception of her competence. Thats just bad managin’ right there.

  • Karen Swim

    I am sorry for that your friend had to endure this experience but glad that you shared it here. Companies should prepare identify the essential KSAs that are needed to attain the goals of the position. Far too often I have found companies searching for a list of abilities that are meaningless to actually succeeding in the position. Every company should also spend the time to plan for training and integration. It is worth it to take time to coach and mentor new hires so that they succeed. It is in no one’s best interest to hire and then terminate someone in less than a year. Finally, I always advise clients to ask the interview to step them through the training plan and expectations of the first 90 days on the job. An interviewer’s answers will provide you the information you need to know if they will throw you to the wolves or take time to help you transition.

    Karen

  • Gerry Crispin

    I enjoyed this article which puts the responsibility of managing squarely on the manager. While not discussed but relevant to this forum, what is the responsibility of the recruiter who served the hiring manager? At what point did he or she have the responsibility to counsel the manager prior to the hire about the needs of the person he was taking on? What responsibility to the selected candidate to clarify expectations? In my time I’ve lobbied to get the recruiter out of recruiting and the manager out of managing when these situations occur and are not addressed.

  • Henry Butler

    For a moment there I thought you had a crystal ball and saw some of the things that go on in my company. All of our managers are ‘home-grown’, meaning they all started out in an entry level position within our company and they’ve worked their way into a management position. All of them are really knowledgeable in their particular field, yet they sometimes (not all the time) forget where they came from. They have no problem with getting rid of ‘dead weight’ or what presume to be ‘dead weight’ and it’s normally too early (within 2 or 3 weeks) to tell if that’s really the case. This article could/should turn on a light in our management team’s head at least I hope. I’ll be sending this article to all of them ASAP.

  • Ann Roberts

    What you have indicated happens much more than we want to recognize or admit. It happens at all levels. This is absolutely the failing and inadequacy of the hiring authority and or direct reporting line. No excuses! These terminations happen, not because the employee failed (assuming they showed up everyday), but because the authority found someone else they liked better or because they decided they just personally do not like this person. So what recourse is available for the terminated employee? What rights can they exercise? What protections are available? Often they have left other lucrative positions, not to mention the personal arrangements or adjustments they have made to accept this position. Where is the help for these mistreated folks?

  • David Rees

    It does not sound like a TRP fee was involved, but to take it in another direction, if this happened to a TPRs candidate, would the client be due a credit/refund?

    If so, I think that is a huge problem. We tend to assume that any firing is going to be for a legit reason so we exclude layoffs and stuff like that while putting livelihood on the line against another persons irrational whims.

    Client should be required to show cause or progressive discipline, not just say ‘we decided to hope for something better to come along…’

  • Ross Clennett

    Thanks Ronald, an excellent article. This is what happens when managers are either ineffective interviewers, ineffective coaches or ineffective communicators (or a combination of all three). How could that company possibly afford to carry, in a position of leadership, a person of such incompetence? To blame the candidate is the antithesis of what leadership is all about.

  • Ann Roberts

    Any body have any ideas for recourse for this poor victim? Any legal recourse?