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Probation for a 48-Year-Old Employee?

Our quality control manager, Josh (all names are changed), made an appointment with me instead of stopping by my office to talk, so I knew he had a greater-than-trivial concern. I had an idea what he wanted to talk about. Josh showed up on time and sat in my visitor chair.

“I really need to take the next step with Kevin,” he said.

“What’s going on?” I asked.

“Well, you know, Kevin is this guy who makes trouble. He objects to everything, he’s insolent in meetings, and he’s not with the program. I have to act.”

“I understand,” I said. “That sounds frustrating, Josh. You and Kevin and I have worked together for three or four years now. We’ve traveled together, gone out to lunch and dinner together countless times-–he’s one of your best people, he’s an ace, and right now you two are locking horns, so you’re thinking about firing him. Can we pull back the truck a few feet and talk about what’s really going on?”

“I agree that Kevin is a brilliant guy and that he’s been a huge asset to us,” Josh said, “but we don’t see eye to eye on the most important things, and I can’t have someone in my group who’s actively bucking my authority.”

”Agreed,” I said. “I hear Kevin asking hard questions, letting you know when he thinks you’re off base, and I see some anger around that conflict on both of your parts.”

“Well, sometimes you’re right because you’re the manager,” said Josh.

I let that hang in the air for a few seconds.

“So, there’s a conflict, and we haven’t addressed the conflict in any concerted way, but we’re going to send Kevin packing because we can’t talk about the conflict and get past it?”

“I don’t want to fire Kevin right now,” said Josh. “I  want to put him on probation.”

Discipline for Discord?

“Oh, for God’s sake,” I said, “Kevin is 47 or 48 years old, he’s a senior engineer, and you’re going to put him on probation? Come on, this isn’t middle school. What good would that do? Your issue with Kevin isn’t a disciplinary thing—it’s two different points of view on how to run the business.”

“Well, that’s true, but it becomes a disciplinary thing when he makes it obvious he doesn’t support me,” said Josh.

“He hasn’t insulted you,” I said. “He’s been vocal in his opposition to  your strategy, and in fact we have to give him big points for forthrightness. I mean, how often do employees disagree with the direction of the department and keep quiet about it? That’s by far the more common circumstance, right? Kevin is that internal questioner every company needs. He keeps us on our toes. Look at the amazing ideas he’s had, for product, marketing, everything—we can’t just say one day, ‘This time we don’t want to hear it’ and shut him up, right? I know Kevin is a pain at times, but where does his conviction come from? He cares about the company, for Pete’s sake. He wants us to thrive. That is gold. He’s a brilliant guy and he’s bringing his ideas and energy here. What are you going to do, Josh, swat him down because you’re his supervisor and you can? Is that the leadership brand you want to convey? ‘I allow no independent thought’?”

“I need to let him know that he can’t question me in public,” said Josh.

“So have that conversation with him,” I said. “Ask him what he thinks the two of you could do to get past this. If you two decide that you just can’t work together, we have other openings in the company.”

Josh was silent, and fuming. ”You would transfer an employee who is on probation—or nearly on probation—into another department?”

“Dude!” I said. “Kevin has worked here for years, and you two have only gotten into it over the past month or so. He’s one of our top technical guys and he’s an industry expert. Would you rather see him working for our competitor?”

“Liz,” said Josh, “you have to teach employees who’s in charge.”

Teaching a Boss How to Lead

“The big irony for me here,” I said, “is that your department is Quality Control. I just went to one of your presentations last week, where you talked about looking for root causes. You’ve got some kind of philosophical difference with Kevin, and rather than sit down with the man and talk about that and look for the root causes, you want to put him on probation like a kid at KFC who smoked a doobie in the alley behind the store.”

“They fire you for that,” said Josh.

I soldiered on. “It’s hard to dig into this stuff, Josh,” I said. “I know. But it’s worth it. You are awesome. Kevin is a great guy. You and he are at loggerheads and Kevin is not a guy who holds his tongue a second more than he has to. I get it. Let’s meet, the three of us, and sort things out.”

“So it’s just you, me, and Kevin and we’re just sitting here talking about strategy—and we’re equals?” Josh asked.

“Pretty much,” I said. “What else could it be? We get two choices, Josh. We can say: ‘You are the low man on this totem pole, Kevin, and you have to do what I tell you and like it,’ and watch him bail on us. Who wins in that situation? Our competitors get this guy that we know can be hard to manage but who we also know is a superstar. Or we can decide that it’s part of our job as managers to pick our way through these not-fun interpersonal conflicts without bringing the hammer down just because someone isn’t as shiny and happy and subservient as we’d like him to be.”

“You talk to him,” said Josh. “Tell me what he says.”

“Josh, I talk to Kevin all the time. You know what he says. You hear him say it in meetings. He thinks the strategy is off-base and so do at least 30 percent of the developers, and I’m not ratting Kevin out here because I’ve heard him tell you the same thing. What are we going to do—make like Soviet-era secret police and silence dissent?”

“I’ll meet with Kevin and you one time,” said Josh.

“Let’s Get Out of Here”

The three of us met. Josh and Kevin railed at each another. Kevin, the difficult guy, surprised me by complimenting his boss three or four times during the meeting. At about the 38-minute mark, Josh finally turned around and gave Kevin some praise. They worked through some engineering things that made no sense to me whatsoever, but I was nonetheless glad to be in the room.

I must admit my heart did a little dance when Josh said, “Kevin, we should meet like this twice a month or so and talk about the plan and the architecture.”

“Let’s do it, and let’s get out of here for that,” Kevin responded.

I didn’t care whether they were going out for coffee or to ride bumper cars—the crisis was averted.

I tell the students in my MBA classes that they can manage people through the authority of the position—a fake, flimsy thing that someone else conferred on you and that every person alive on earth can see through in one second—or through their professional credibility and integrity. We get to choose one path or the other. When we open up a conversation to let a light into it, as Josh did with Kevin, rather than jumping into the frame of “I’m the manager and I can shut you up,” the whole system gets stronger and everybody’s “how can we work as a team?” muscles grow.

I hope that all human resources people and department managers have a few experiences like this one to remind them that it’s never the right answer to avoid leadership conversations such as the one Josh and Kevin needed to have. Conversation is sticky and time-consuming, but it sometimes leads to amazing breakthroughs. It strengthens relationships and teams and enables conflict resolution.

On the other hand, ”you’re on probation” and “you’re fired” are fast and final and fear-based. Castigation serves only to shut people down and keep their power and creativity under wraps.

Which path are you going to take?

Liz Ryan is an expert on the new-millennium workplace and a former Fortune 500 HR executive.

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