Recognizing When to Involve HR

Bertrand Dubaut

Senior Engineering Manager at Booking.com



We hired a brilliant engineer for a very niche talent. They were passionate about the job. After a few months, the work was not interesting to them anymore. Unfortunately, we did not have any other kind of tasks either, where we could accommodate their skills. As great of an iOS engineer they were, that individual was more into prototyping and designing. However, we needed someone who could write code.

It was okay for a while, but then it became a bit more toxic because that person was not collaborative in any way. In my justification, I care a lot about my team members — understanding who they are, their needs, and building a great rapport with them. After all, whatever happens in their personal lives takes a toll on their professional lives, so, my sixth sense was telling me that the individual was dealing with some own issues.

Neither was I a psychologist nor did I have the training to help people deal with trauma. So, at some point, I handed the matter over to HR since I was not able to deal with it anymore. Eventually, we did not renew the person’s contract any longer, regardless of their brilliance and talent. Their emotional baggage from the previous experience had brought us an unworkable situation and we could not provide them with what they wanted out of the job.

Actions taken

It was one of the early stages of my management career, and to be honest, one of the saddest. At first, it was fine as I would actively listen to them during the 1:1s. Soon, I figured out that I became more like a shoulder to cry on, and from then on it escalated. When you become a manager, you realize that there is a breaking point after which things become a little intolerable. This is followed by another awkward situation where no one is happy when you finally drop hints about the situation.

Towards the beginning, I was patient and persistent. I spent an adequate amount of time listening to their problems and giving them similar examples from my experience. I thought that sharing my problems and how I solved them might make them feel better about themselves. Unfortunately, I was wrong. I re-directed them towards our company’s objectives, and what we were going to do, but that did not work either.

I fully grasped that no one should go into management if they cannot care about people. I managed and tried to fix those. I spent a lot of time and energy trying to help this person to get over these things. Kept them engaged and motivated throughout their day-to-day work. Gradually, it did not work at all. It kept escalating to a point, where I had to take a step back and realize that trying to fix someone was not my job.

The company was not large enough to move that person to another department or even another team. In terms of SWOT analysis, I think these exercises work if the person is receptive to feedback. This person was not, and it made it even harder to have an actual dialogue because, at some point, it was just unidirectional, and then you could not even answer.

Lessons learned

  • Find the proper distance to have with people, especially in the start-up environment. Being friendly is okay, but there needs to be a clear boundary between things that you can help people with. In this example, these lines were too blurred and it made me recognize that I was not able to resolve this issue as a colleague a bit too late.
  • The fine line between WFH and personal life is sometimes blurred. Understanding those unparalleled insights are important. Make sure that you, along with your direct reports, have some balance between personal and professional lives in order to avoid burnouts or talent turnover.

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Bertrand Dubaut

Senior Engineering Manager at Booking.com

Leadership DevelopmentCommunicationOrganizational StrategyCulture DevelopmentEngineering ManagementPerformance ReviewsFeedback TechniquesCareer GrowthCareer ProgressionIndividual Contributor Roles

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