Firing someone who has become indispensable

Conrad Chu

CTO at Munchery



There was an employee at my company who I needed to release, but who made it difficult for me to let them go, because they made themselves indispensable. It wasn't so much people relied on them, but critical pieces of information was siloed in their heads. In addition, some part of our infrastructure was tied to their personal ownership (we didn't have the keys). Temporary test infrastructure gradually got into production because of pressure to deliver results on time. A problem that many managers face is when they have to let go of somebody. You'll often get inklings that you should let them go well before you actually do. Some managers will attempt to let go of people as quickly as possible and you will often hear people say if you fire people quickly you'll have no regrets. However, in reality, it is often a lot harder to do this than you expect.

Actions taken

We had to let go of the individual as it was getting toxic for everyone else. There was no way to salvage infrastructure that they had the keys to. We ripped the bandaid and as expected, the backlash on their departure was felt company-wide.

Lessons learned

If someone becomes indispensable, the problem originates how your organization operates. After releasing the engineer, we discovered the source of the problem - we weren't cross-training, sharing information or documenting it, we weren't walking people through the code so others could take over, and we weren't bringing others in to make important decisions. We were letting people silo themselves without being aware of it, and it only became apparent when we had to let someone go. Individuals who are poor-performing and dispensable makes an easy decision. However, poor-performing yet indispensable people are very dangerous to your team. Every organization has one. Everyone has worked with somebody who produces amazing output, yet steamrolls everyone and leaves a trail of victims. To really combat this, you have to create a culture where everyone strives makes themselves replaceable by sharing critical pieces of information and cross-training. And that person who steamrolls over people, drop them.

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Conrad Chu

CTO at Munchery

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance MetricsLeadership TrainingPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer Growth

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