Letting go: as important as hiring

Human resources matters are an inherent part of project management. Project managers often face related dilemas and are expected to mindfully resolve the issues for the benefit of the project, sometimes with “do not harm” or “damage control” as guiding principles in mind.

Let’s look into Suzzane and John’s story. 

Suzanne was managing a project where John worked as a project associate. His job description almost matched the project manager’s with the exception of accountability for project implementation and it’s results. John was three years older, with no prior project management experience. Suzzane was the fourth project manager he worked with in five months. At their first meeting he told Suzanne that he does not like the job. Suzzane assured him that there would be plenty of opportunities to grow professionally. Later she learned from HR that he said exactly the same thing at the interview and only accepted the job because he was unemployed at that point. He had a term contract, with a possibility of extension depending on his performance.

It was a flagship project of a major donor, A rated and with high expectations to fulfill. Over two dozens of internationals and nationals, which came with high ranking officials as counterparts, all managed by three project office staff.

Suzzane was not a solo decision maker when it comes to personnel. There might be bias, personal issues or just phases, on both ends. She talked to three of John’s former supervisors and learned of the same pattern of behaviour and attitude. Late payments, delayed documents processing, taskes ignored for months, allergy to team-work, lack of corporate ethics and knowledge of procedures, negative attitude and denial at feedback, polite to internationals, rude to nationals, with no friends in the organization, counting others’ money …

Suzanne shared her concerns about John’s performance with her supervisors. She followed HR rules. She talked to a colleague, Fred, whose experience in HR and team management exceeded hers and whose judgment she trusted. He had a similar issue in a project he managed. He advised Suzzane to give John performance evaluations every two months.

Suzzane chose not to give John an optional mid-term performance evaluation because they were in the middle of concluding major contracts. It required major micro-management but she was willing to do it to. She delayed her family vacation to mid-September. Knowing John’s reaction to feedback, Suzzane anticipared that he will claim the 3 weeks of annual leave he was entitled to and slump the door in the middle of the process, which was already delayed. Suzzane chose to prioritize the project over the personnel issues.

So a month before the end of his contract, and with the majorcconctracting behind, following HR procedures, Suzzane approached John in a friendly way hoping for a different reaction. “When 7 months ago you said you do not like the job, I thought you were kidding or just have a phase. You do understand that this attitude impacts your performance, don’t you?”. He only said with sarcasm that he got the idea. That was a Friday. Suzzane was still hopeful for him to come and discus it and find together optimum ways out. John submitted a leave request to start in 2 days. She signed it, giving him another chance. To no avail. 

On Monday morning Suzzane put on his desk two versions of his evaluation asking him to tell her which one he believes is to stay on the organisation’s files. He chose the neutral one. To the one listing examples of her performance John said he is sorry about it and run to the supervisor, to complain. The supervisor, informed in advance, supported Suzzane. He reviewed Suzzane’s marks only to agree that there were no grounds for upgrades and the evaluation remained the same. He suggested him to consider perhaps other jobs. John submited his resignation letter quoting personal reasons. HR notified John that his resignation letter was approved by the management. 

These were three painful months for Suzzane but she was satisfied that project-wise she reached her objective, even if with a slight delay, which she anticipated. She invested a lot of time and energy and gave him numerous opportunities to redress the situation through constant feedback. She consulted people who knew John professionally, which made her more confident that this was not a phase or a biased decision. She did all the paper work on personnel and filed them in advance with anyone who needs to be involved.

A good lesson learned for the project management is to have mitigation measures in place. Two months  in advance Suzzane talked to assistants she knew in th organizatiin to look into their interest and availability. This secured a transition arrangement for an assistant’s support for three months. Although on overtime, this assistant was highly efficient, giving Suzzane the time she needed to focus on important project matters. A couple of other assistants chipped in offering help. So did numerous other colleagues in HR, procurement and finances. No one felt the difference from day one of John’s departure. The back office was seen as run smoothly. 

In the meantime, a selection process for an assistant in another project was happening and Suzzane weas offered to consider the second best candidate for the vacancy. And the second best was indeed good. 

Fred, Suzzane’s colleague, was right: she learned a lot, about human nature, cooperation, colleagues’ support, give and take at the work place. Moreover, for a project manager, choosing the right time to say good bye is critical. And, as a mindful project manager, try to always create backups. Learn about all processes your colleagues do to unveil and prevent bottlenecks, creat a network of back-office supporters and even act yourself as a backup, if necessary, for the project’s objective.

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