Michael Eriksson's Blog

A Swede in Germany

Good riddance and poor colleagues

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Through the years, I have said my farewells to dozens of teams and who knows how many individual team members*. Usually, this is a more or less sad occasion, depending on how long I have worked with someone and how the personal chemistry was. Only rarely do I have a feeling of “good riddance”, and when I do, it is usually directed at the company or the politics, not the team members. In as far as I am frustrated with individuals, it is usually a matter of their incompetence, not their character.

*I work as an external contractor/IT consultant who is typically hired for three or six months at a time. My “turnover” is correspondingly far above the average.

This Friday, however, I parted with a team member so obnoxious, immature, destructive, and unprofessional, that I am truly relieved to be rid of him—a very strong candidate for worst team member in my almost twenty years of working. In fact, he was so bad that had I not known that he was quitting, I would quite possible have turned down the last contract extension I was offered…

Below I will first give some illustrations of the problems and then go into a more general discussion of the conundrums of handling certain problems. (I try not to go off on a rant. If I fail, well, that is a sign of my long frustration.)

  1. The last few months, he might have spent as little four (4!) hours a day actually working and the rest of his nominal eight hours socializing with others—of course, keeping them from their work too. Now, while I have nothing against people socializing during working hours, this has to remain in reasonable limits and time that effectively is private time simply does not count as working time. If he had been in the office twelve hours a day, well that is eight hours of work and four hours of private time and I have no major objection. He was not… If anything, he tended to leave early.* If he had spent half-an-hour socializing and the remainder working, well no-one is perfect. He did not…

    *I have not timed his daily stays in the office, so I could be wrong. However, based on my impression ofwhen he typically came in the morning and left in the afternoon, compared to my own times and factoring in that I rarely take a lunch break, I strongly suspect that he came in short of even a nominal eight-hour day.

  2. He was a near constant disturber of the peace in the office we shared with two other colleagues. This included narrating what he did on the computer, making silly voices, and trying to be funny* through humor that was barely above the fecal level. To make matters worse, although not deliberate, most of his professional discussions consisted of long stretches of “uuum”s and “eeer”s interspersed with snippets of information—which after fifteen minutes is truly annoying.

    *Generally, the Germans tend not to understand humor and comedy. There are exceptions, but mostly their attempts are merely “albern”, not funny. (I have been unable to find a good translation of “albern”. From a dictionary, “silly” or “foolish” are possibly the closest matches, when taking “fool” half way between the “idiot” and “jester” senses.) I love good comedy, but it is rarely found in Germany and I cannot recall him, specifically, providing one single instance.

  3. When the other two colleagues were not present, he repeatedly went from a seemingly jovial moron to a nasty piece of shit, to the point that I repeatedly suspecting him of deliberately trying to provoke a fight. (See also parts of the more general discussion below.)
  4. It was impossible to have a constructive discussion with him regarding his behavior or actions*. For instance, I once pointed out, perfectly neutrally and as a simple factual observation, that it was a bad idea to have a window open and the AC running at the same time—and he actually tried to start a fight over that, from zero to hundred in two seconds. (He failed only because I refused to take the fight over an issue that did not affect me that strongly—if he wants to increase pollution and run up his employers utility bill, that is on him.) On several occasions when I tried to have a constructive discussion to make it easier to co-exist, he flatly refused to even take the discussion (e.g. through just leaving the office or saying that I should complain to his superior**); when discussions did take place they were without exception fruitless, because he refused to even consider other interests than his own.

    *We all make mistakes, most of us fail in being a bit egocentric, and so on. However: With most adults it is possible to at least talk about such issues—and that makes a world of difference.

    **Not in the “OK, we disagree. Feel free to get a formal ruling.” manner but in the “I do what the fuck I like. If you don’t like it, don’t even bother to talk to me, because I won’t listen.” manner.

  5. A particular common problem was the question of ventilation. Once the summer had started, even on cold days, he suddenly wanted to have windows open, air conditioning on, or typically both simultaneously*. Something that happened again, and again, and again, was that he would open a window (which I tolerated), leave fifteen minutes later, me eventually realizing that he had not gone of for five minutes but for a prolonged time without closing the window, me closing the window, and him coming back five minutes later and insisting that the window be opened to “get some fresh air”—despite the air being as fresh as it gets. To make matters worse, he often left again another five minutes later, leaving the window open… My repeated offer that we should (on cold days!) keep the window shut for most of the time and “stoßlüften”** once an hour was ignored every time. During the last two weeks, I quite frankly found it hard to believe that “fresh air” was his objective in the first place—it instead being a case of recalcitrance or deliberate provocation. (While close to forty, he had the maturity to match fourteen, making this less far-fetched than it might seem—but remember Hanlon’s Razor.)

    *The original occurrence mentioned above took place on a genuinely hot day and was far less remarkable. I dislike boiling in the office as much as the next guy.

    **This is another German word without an obvious English equivalent. Basically, it is the approach of open the windows fully for possibly five minutes to exchange a lot of air quickly. It is recommended by e.g. heating companies as a matter of course in Germany.

    Not only was this a nuisance, but I actually had several sick days at least partially caused by having cold air blown at me for hours a day. In fact, I have gone for several weeks, in the middle of the summer, with a continually sore throat. I note that other offices on the same floor had their windows shut and the AC off during these cold days. (But I stress that I am not necessarily saying that I was in the right and that he was in the wrong, this being a matter of conflicting preferences and interests. The larger problem is his utter refusal to even discuss my point of view or even just try to find a compromise.)

Now, while getting at least some of these annoyances of my chest is satisfying, there are a few less personal issues that I would like to discuss:

  1. How should one handle a mostly internal problem (in this case a horrible employee) as an external contractor? The actual employees have it easier—if all else fails, they can go to their boss, explain the situation, get a mediation or a ruling, and in almost all cases things will at least be clearer, often better, in the end. For an external contractor, the situation is tricky for at least three (partially overlapping) reasons, often leaving him with the choice between “suck it up” and “find another project”. Taking an alpha-male stance, no matter how tempting, borders on the suicidal—Superman can stop a train; the likes of Schwarzenegger and “The Rock” would be squashed if the driver did not pull the breaks in time.

    Firstly, problems that occur are time limited for the contractor, he has a lesser personal investment, and he is normally paid far more for his troubles than the employees he works with. As a contractor, I can point out, for instance, that this-or-that is sub-optimal—but if the people who hired me insist to do it this way, that is usually none of my business. If in doubt, it is their money, future, success, whatnot on the line—not mine.

    Secondly, if an external contractor causes a conflict with or between the wrong people, he stands a far greater risk of seeing his services “no longer needed” than a regular employee does*. Notably, many companies are hyper-sensitive to criticism against local “traditions”—often the more so, the worse they are. Notably, with too many people it is a question of who knows whom the best—not of who has the best arguments. Notably, many (especially women) are unable to understand that a difference in opinion does not imply a personal dislike.

    *With some reservations for local law and customs. Note that Germany does not practice “at-will employment”; on the contrary, it is very hard to get rid of an actual employee, even when highly unwanted.

    Thirdly, taking a hard stance even against fairly junior employees is tricky. The exact organizational regulations will vary from project to project, but unless the contractor is specifically hired as a team lead, project manager, or similar, it is usually best to consider oneself outside both the formal and informal chain-of-command*. This especially since the personal and professional relationships will typically be more shallow than between the regular employees. For instance, if I had been a regular employee for the last ten years in the situation above, I could have** just set the trouble-maker down and given him a stern talking to about e.g. “the way we do things”. As is, he could just have responded with a “Who are we? What do you know about what we do?” or similar.

    *In Germany, this is more-or-less a necessity for another reason, namely “Scheinselbständigkeit”. This is too large a topic for this article, but the simplified version is that if an external contractor (working as an individual, not employed by a third-party) is too integrated into the company, the German government will see the “external contractor” part as an attempt at tax evasion, reclassify the contractor as an employee, and force both parties to shell out additional taxes and fees of various kind.

    **Or at least tried: With such an exceptional case, I might have had to escalate the issues even in the modified scenario, for the simple reason that some rare people are beyond reason…

    As an analogy, consider the options available to a grand-parent and a baby-sitter who feel that a child should be treated differently. Unless the situation is so atrocious that social services need to be involved, the baby-sitter can basically only make recommendations to the parents—insisting, starting a fight on the matter, holding a I-am-better-at-parenting speech, …, these are things that a grand-parent can often get away with, sometimes even to the point of affecting a change. The grand-parent might even have the option to sue for custody, if worst comes to worst. The baby-sitter? Not so much…

    Being able to push issues with success and lack of danger usually requires having built a considerable amount of rapport with the right people. An external contractor who actually focuses on doing what he is paid for will rarely have that rapport outside of the immediate team.

  2. How should one handle a problem that one knows will soon pass on its own? (Assuming that other constraints do not apply, e.g. the “I am an external contractor” issue.)

    Here I am a bit at a loss: I have almost always chosen to sit it out in the past. This has often worked, but I have often also been left with a potentially avoidable damage because something worse-than-usual happened between the decision to sit it out and the actual passing, or because the damage accumulated higher than I had anticipated*, often because I had overestimated the competence levels of other parties and seen even repeated screw-ups as events unlikely to repeat. My tentative recommendation would be to give someone two or three** strikes, depending on the issue, and then take action—even when it is clear that the problem or the trouble-maker will be gone in the not too far away future. Going to four or more strikes will lead to exactly the type of problems I have had when waiting; reacting on the first strike will lead to too many reasons to complain and will likely come across as pre-mature*** with the recipients of the complaint.

    *Which to some degree was the case above; with hindsight, I probably should have escalated the issues, even as an external contractor and even with the limited time frame.

    **Of course allowing for faster reactions when something truly bad happens or when there is reason to believe that the counter-part both acted out of ignorance and is likely to repeat. Other special cases likely exist, say when someone does an unfortunate web re-design, which is a one-off occurrence with a repeating damage. (I often make a deliberate point of giving feedback on such occasions, in the (vain?) hope that someone will re-consider.) Personal conflicts, like the one above, can be particularly tricky, because while the one party waits, the other party is quite possibly already actively complaining to everyone else. This applies in particular to the type of two-faced individual I discuss below.

    ***Specifically in Germany, this need not matter, because the openness to critique and attitude towards customers is often abysmal. Where e.g. the U.S. has the proverbial “the customer is king”, Germany has its proverbial “Servicewüste Deutschland”—“Service desert Germany”. In both cases, the reality does not always match the claim, but there is a reason why it has reached a proverbial status.

  3. How should one handle the superficially friendly people who are at best neutral, at worst hostile, behind the mask?

    Let me start with the remark that most people in the modern world appear to not understand friends and friendship at all: A friend is not someone you like spending time with—a friend is someone who (e.g.) hides you at a personal risk when you are on the run from the law, or gives up a kidney when you need one. “A friend in need is a friend indeed.” No matter how entertaining someone is, no matter how much you like drinking a pint with him in the pub, …, he is still not worthy of the name “friend” if he drops you as soon as things get rough or if his main interest is in getting a benefit from you.

    I have long taken the stance, and will likely continue to do so, that what matters is substance, not superficial pleasantry. This is also the main reason that my opinion of the above ex-colleague is radically different from that of most other team members—they look at his attempts to cozy up, socialize, small-talk, …, while I look at his actual actions, how he handles conflicts, how he behaves when the mask drops, … Because of this, most people (myself included before I had the time to actually understand him) think of him as a pleasant guy, someone to spend time with. I see him for what he is: The possibly worst ass-hole I have worked with in my almost twenty years in software development.

    Here there is a potential source of problems: When opinions differ, it is usually the majority that rules and the minority that is considered absurd, even when having a more well-formed and realistic opinion.

    Another issue is that these two-faced individuals are so used to getting their way with the sympathies of others, that they often cannot handle a negative reaction. Even the troublesome ex-colleague above repeatedly behaved like a complete idiot and then expected that if he smiled at me and made a little small-talk everything would be well again.* Sorry: It does not work that way with rational people—once I know what lies beneath the mask, the mask cannot change things again**. In fact, such hypocritical attempts turn me personally off just as much as the original offenses.

    *This is not to be confused with e.g. two people who like or respect each other having an argument and then mending their relation, or with a basically good guy having a rare slip and then making amends. In these cases, and assuming genuinely friendly smiles, small-talk, whatnot, the situation is very different. The above, in contrast, deals with evil bastards, psychopaths, opportunistic salesmen and politicians, and the like. Consider Carcer in Terry Pratchett’s “Night Watch” for an extreme example.

    **However, a reciprocal mask of “I utterly despise you, but will keep it hidden, because we still have to work with each other for the foreseeable future” is still possible, often wise. As the remainder of his employment shrank, I grew correspondingly less inclined to keep that mask up.

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Written by michaeleriksson

August 14, 2016 at 10:47 pm

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