Enterprise Software

Dealing with morale dilemmas and tough staffing decisions

CIO Republic's HR expert Peter Woolford explains why you should support your team member's quest to move into another department, as well why you need to cut dead weight even if new replacements aren't on the agenda.


CIO Republic’s monthly column, CIO HR Corner, focuses on helping IT executives find the right answers for staffing and personnel issues. If you have a question you’d like CIO Republic columnist Peter Woolford to answer, e-mail it to us.

Question: Should I help a valuable player move on?
A tenured IT manager on my staff has asked my help in moving into a new business division in a different IT group. I don't want to lose this professional, as his experience is hard to come by, yet as a colleague and friend I don't want to hold him back. I know it would be ethically and morally wrong to sabotage his quest. Is there anything I can do before this effort of his moves ahead?
Member’s anonymity requested

Answer: Blocking staff transfer has no upside
First and foremost, start your efforts to identify this person's replacement immediately. Your IT manager has asked for a transfer, so one of three things will happen:
  1. Your charm, talent, and promises will convince him to stay in your group. (But how long will your "magic spell" last? Realistically, any success at getting him to not transfer will be temporary.)
  2. He will transfer to the other group.
  3. He will leave the company.

I once had a boss who tried to talk me out of a transfer because it wasn't convenient for him. He took me to lunch and let me drive his car. It was only a Toyota Celica, so I took the transfer. (If he'd had a Porsche, my career might have turned out differently.)

Standing in the way of a transfer will mean your IT manager will soon lose patience with you and simply leave the company. You’ll lose him as a friend and as a coworker.

Helping the transfer means you'll have an ally in that other group, and you keep him as a friend. Helping the transfer also means you influence, and to some extent control, the timing of the change.

If you block the transfer, you'll keep him for a month or two while he looks, but in the end, he'll be gone. And then you’ll only get two weeks notice to replace him.

A wise boss would agree to the transfer and then start stalling. Here is what you can do to stall successfully.
  • Help arrange the meetings for the transfer, but not too quickly.
  • Task him with hiring his replacement before he transfers. Even better, have him overlap with the replacement for a short time.
  • Get a commitment from the new department head that your departing IT manager will split time between his existing role and his new role.
  • Arrange periodic meetings for advice/guidance for next six months.

If you play your cards right, the transition will be relatively smooth, and you’ll both get excellent benefits from the advancement.

Question: Should I keep dead weight since no replacement is possible?
Due to tight budgets this year, I haven't been able to increase my staff, yet I have two mid-level managers who aren't up to par, despite a few evaluation sit-downs. In any other scenario I would let them go, but I know I won't be able to replace them. The issue is starting to affect staff morale, however, and I'm not sure what to do.
Member's anonymity requested

Answer: Drop poor performers immediately
You must let the managers go—you’ll be better off without them rather than letting them bring down the performance of the entire team.

Everyone is working with reduced staffs at this point, and most of the weak performers are long gone. You mention this is starting to affect morale. You need to get these two out of there before your teams blow up. Morale is very important in times like these. While it may be tough to justify replacing two managers, it will be even harder to justify your own job if two entire teams leave.

The big issue is what to do going forward after you cut the slackers.

You mention you can't increase staff, but then you also say you can't replace staff. In most companies these are two different issues. While you won't be able to hire in advance of terminating the under-performers, you should be able to replace them.

Your best move would be to negotiate the right to replace, without adding to headcount. This is typically not an easy dance. Here are some tips:
  • Find replacements, confidentially and quickly
    After you find the replacements, negotiate for the swap. If you terminate the managers and then start looking for replacements, the timing won't work. The bosses will view it as adding to headcount. Bosses have short memories. They won't view the new hires as replacements unless the transactions happen at the same time.
  • Politic with everyone on why these replacements are necessary
    Your boss gets input from lots of people; make sure you get to all of these people before your boss does. This can mean the CEO, the chairman of the board, the CFO, any number of financial analysts who model the numbers, and the executive secretaries. Do this carefully and cautiously—you don't want to be accused of going over anyone's head.
  • Hire the replacements on a six-month temp-to-perm basis
    In many companies, this will be viewed as a reduction in permanent staff headcount. Once the replacements have proven themselves, it will be much easier to justify their offers. Hopefully, the business climate will improve by then, which will also make it easier to justify the offers.

There must be something in air with the change of season: I am seeing a significant number of companies launching confidential searches to replace managers. I believe it is because of the business climate. Two years ago, all companies were doing well. You could easily push aside an under-performing manager. Now, you can't add to head count. You have to replace them. Good luck doing the justification dance.

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