We fired our top talent. Best decision we ever made.
Jonathan Solórzano-Hamilton

This doesn’t only happen in IT. And the answers to it are never easy for anyone. More, the answers are often ones of management and of contractual rights and obligations; but rarely in IT companies is there enough knowledge of these things to make a difference. (And sometimes, even with all the knowledge, employee support and legal opinion on both sides in the world, you end up in the same place. And that leaves both parties trying to pick something worthwhile out of the smoking ruins.)

I spent twenty years as an employee representative in a small branch of the UK Civil Service. We used a lot of IT but also had Ricks in non-IT roles too. Some of the Ricks really were Albert Einstein in their particular fields. And as an employee representative, I sometimes had to hold the ring in some disputes, support the employee when no-one else would (even if they were wrong, because everyone is entitled to their defence), and sometimes kick off legal process when all else failed.

My view — and this is based on UK law and my experience — is that Rick could and probably should have been fired on the spot — or at the very least suspended on full pay — for the ‘Albert Einstein’ moment, because having that outburst in front of a client would count as “gross misconduct” in anybody’s book. If he had been fired, the company would have had a train wreck moment where they had to go in and try to resurrect the project from the jumbled mess that was Rick’s office; Rick would have to consult advisors as to what redress, if any, he could access after the event. Suspending him pending a disciplinary process would have had the same effect for the company, but staff advisors/paralegals would have the opportunity to talk to Rick and kick off some sort of process to try to see what could be salvaged from the situation for Rick and for the company. The legal process would still be there at the end of the disciplinary road.

Instead, the company retained Rick and let stuff fester. So we would basically be in the position where sooner or later, Rick would have to be removed and matters brought to a head with the company instituting some sort of disciplinary process and Rick’s advisors challenging management inaction and their culpability in letting things get to the stage they did. Meanwhile, the company also has to deal with the train wreck moment same as before.

At the end of the day, either the company and Rick might hammer out a “compromise agreement” where Rick leaves of his own free will with a severance package, a confidentiality agreement and a bit of dignity; or the whole thing ends up (in the UK) in an Employment Tribunal (labour court) where, if Rick has the right support and advice, a half-decent advocate will argue that the company had no clear written disciplinary process, let matters slide, and through loading Rick with everything he said he could do, were at least partly culpable in precipitating the situation. A really decent advocate would probably have commissioned a medical report to show that Rick was suffering from extreme workplace stress and it was all the company's fault for not managing him and not taking charge of the situation at the first or at the most second sign that things were going wrong. A Tribunal would most likely apportion blame between Rick and the company (they often go for 60/40 just for convenience) and the possibility would be that Rick might come out with a small severance package (but probably not that much) and the company has egg on its face through all this coming out in a public court (ETs don’t meet behind closed doors).

That’s my experience. In actual fact, certainly in the IT sector, so many companies don't know what their rights and obligations are, and neither do the employees. There are some voluntary organisations that might help employees access advice, such as Citizen’s Advice; some UK lawyers operate under the Legal Aid scheme where they will at least advise on cases on a pro bono basis; and for those cases where the IT team is part of a larger, probably public or former public sector organisation, there may be trade union help and advice available. (That was the role I played. Sometimes, I was able to stop the employer doing something really stupid.)

The thing is this: from an IT systems development point of view, you pressed the big red button and fired Rick, you had your application train wreck moment, you picked yourselves up from that and moved on in months rather than years. From an IT perspective, that was the right thing and possibly the only thing you could have done, and you ought to have done it much sooner. But from a staff relations point of view, you should never have let things slip so far in the first place, and pressing the red button was where a different set of problems started, potentially tying up the company’s lawyers for years and costing more money if Rick ends up going to law. Not to mention reputational damage, both outside the company (in Tribunal, and in wherever Rick ends up next) and inside (when colleagues, especially those who may be at the top of the slippery slope that leads downwards to Rickdom, pause and say “There but for the grace of God go I”; they may amend their behaviours, they may be proactive in seeking help or asking their managers to think about workload issues [“I don't want to go the same way that Rick did”]; or they may just sooner or later take their talents to a competitor).

In the end, there are very few winners in this sort of situation. Hopefully, there will be people on hand on both sides to intervene and put in place some damage limitation. Get it wrong and there are losers all round. Get it really, really wrong and Rick walks into the office one day with two assault rifles and a handgun. And what price your application then?

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