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Advice to New Managers: Don't Joke About Firing People (2020) (staysaasy.com)
347 points by staccatomeasure on Sept 20, 2021 | hide | past | favorite | 266 comments

That's excellent advice that many have learned the hard way...

Honestly even as a non-manager it's a very bad idea. When I was a junior one of my colleagues was called to the manager's office. I assumed it would be for some mundane project scheduling or whatever, so I jokingly said "you're getting fired" as he was going there. And he was.

This is one of these memories that come back to haunt you late at night when you're trying to sleep...

3 years ago, I had a talk with the Chief Senior Physician of the hospital my mum was treated. She was terminally ill, she was fightiing for weeks, but there was no hope left. So it was decided to end all life support measures.

When I went back to my car, where my then-minor sister was waiting for news, I said: "Sie hat es geschafft.", which literally means "She made it" in German - however, I meant it in the meaning of "She doesn't have to suffer any more.", which is also a valid meaning. After seeing the rlief on my sister's face, I immediately apologized and explained the situation.

Ever since this day, I a) think twice before I speak and b) try to avoid double meanings as much as I can. It still haunts me, though she's fine with it.

I also try to avoid double meanings and also indicate the part of the question I am answering as often times people have different shorthand for the question they are asking than I might have.

example question: "Is this job running?" (implied: is it "working"?)

Answer: "No, it is not currently running however I see it is scheduled to run daily at 7pm. I don't see any errors in the past 2 days. Did you expect it to import data recently?"

Oh god yes. I constantly see misunderstandings and conversations that take three times as long as necessary because people don't clearly and explicitly say what they're asking or answering.

I had the same experience, also in German, when I told my 7 yo son that his grandmother (who had been fighting cancer for a few years) “no longer suffering”. He was at first happy. He’s most likely forgotten but that experience will stay with me for the rest of my life.

In this case it was a euphemism an adult would have understood but a child could not, at least as the first statement.

He's all right.

I once had a friend uncharacteristically not respond to a couple texts confirming plans we'd made. I eventually sent "Are you alive?" and got a call back from the hiking companion who had watched her fall to her death two days earlier.

That one gives me nightmares.

Yikes I'm sorry. In my early twenties I'd jokingly do the "finger gun to the head" thing when I got a task I wasn't pleased about.

Then my cousin died by suicide and, being my first encounter with suicide in the real world, it dawned on me that doing that in front of people was super, super not cool. I'll never know if I did that in front of someone that had lost a loved one to suicide via firearm.

There are so many jokes we make everyday that are about dying or experiencing something unpleasant that it's not reasonable to put up such a barrier. You're basically saying, "NO JOKES!"

You lost the statistical battle but most people will never encounter this scenario. We all encounter scenarios where we make a joke without knowing X person is going through that. You learn and adjust. For instance, I couldn't make jokes or references about cancer with a partner of mine because one of her friends died at like 17 to lung cancer. I was like, "Oh, alright. I get it. I'll avoid that with you."

You don't need to be disbarred from ever making the joke again just because you encountered someone who is sensitive to it. You just don't use that kind of joke with them.

This will vary by person...

But for me at least, it's worse when someone changes what they were going to say to try and avoid a topic they know might be sensitive to you, especially if it was in otherwise "innocent", organic conversation.

For instance, changing a joke with a cancer punchline to something else, on the fly, because halfway into it you realize it's going to offend one of the people present. Who certainly has already heard it, and knows what's coming.

Now, not only have you reminded the person of what you were trying to avoid, but you've also created this awkward tension where you-know that they-know, but have to pretend you don't know, because of the social "gesture" of changing their joke for you. Even if the fact that they're coddling you negates that gesture and then some.

The more extreme example of this is the scenario where kids in school are sharing stories about, eg, their mom or dad, and when you get to the orphan, you either skip over them, or ask them a completely different question than everyone else, without acknowledging and explaining why.

I'm not against dark humour, I think it's grand, actually, and helps us get through trouble. But I think there is a difference between someone putting up a sincere joke and someone in their twenties at the workplace. I'm not Mr. PC Police, but when I put myself in the shoes of someone else that may have lost a loved one in that manner it really shook me.

Suicide isn't so rare that we should avoid making affordances where we can. And even so, a true comic like Dave Chappelle can create real human even on dark subjects at the same time. It's a balance.

And cancer is even more common. Think about heart disease too. Yet, we joke all the time about shit giving us a heart attack or references to something being cancerous - etc.

You are seriously digging deep into the "NO JOKES!" stance. Just because you did a joke that didn't go over well doesn't mean you can't make any jokes anymore.

And to be clear - because this is the internet and everyone on HN wants to be a pedantic andy - I'm not saying you go make "Dark humor is like a child with cancer. It never gets old." type of jokes to parents who had children die of leukemia or some shit.

I just think it's different. People at work shouldn't have to put up with jokes about suicide via gunshot whenever a dumb young kid doesn't like their marching orders for the week.

I tend to go the “make sure everyone is okay with that kind of joke first”, but there's very little practical difference between the results of these two strategies.

For many people the ability to move on it is dependant on others not changing their behavior out of consideration. But that is entirely dependant on the situation.

But yes, making arbitrary rules about bad taste jokes is almost always useless.

Still, as a manager with responsibiliy you might want to restrict your toolbox of jokes by your conscience.

I do that all the time and it never dawned on me until I read your comment. Thank you.

Thank you for the response. It's these small comments of personal reflection that make HN feel like a real place of community.

I saw someone do that to a man who I knew (but he didn’t) had lost his teenage son to a suicide by firearm two days earlier. They hadn’t even had the funeral yet.

I had some friends texting me after being offline for a week. I was in fact alive, but not exactly walking. I had a bit of a motorcycle accident. Now, if people don’t hear from me often enough they start calling. I spooked them a bit. Walking and cursing again after physical therapy.

Her death is of course tragic, but there's nothing wrong with the text question -- you were on target.

I don't believe anyone asking this question expects the recipient to have actually passed away though

yeah this one bothers me about my interaction with some women who take the "never respond" approach to expressing disinterest, I don't even know if they made it home okay and I'm not even sure if I'm in the place to ask

My god, I don't like that people can die from hiking or walking or driving to the store. Those sudden, random, freak-accident type deaths really bother me.

Off topic. Do firings come out of the blue though? I was a VP for a while (not anymore) - but when the person I had to fire was about to get fired, they KNEW it as soon as the door opened. Firing someone is the worst experience ever - the only reason I had to fire someone was because WE screwed up in the interview process.

> the only reason I had to fire someone was because WE screwed up in the interview process.

This is a very important realization. Firing someone is bad all around. They lose their job, they probably quit another job to join, they feel shame' etc. For the company: you not only need to go hire someone but the person you fired was probably not productive so it’s a double whammy. And you didn’t manage to somehow (if it was even possible) give this person what they needed to succeed. Bad bad bad all around. Hiring someone is a responsibility not only to the company but to them; terminating someone who can’t be productive is the right thing to do but is the company’s failure.

The converse to the “don’t joke about firing someone” is, when firing someone don’t mention how you feel about it; also be unambiguous and don’t accidentally give false hope.

I've seen a couple of mass layoffs. How much you see that coming can be a function of how close to the decision-making you are and how familiar you are with the process. As I've advanced, I've progressively seen it coming farther out. But the first one was totally out of the blue to me.

Individual firings seem a bit more predictable.

Do you have any tips/signs to look out for :-)

I've seen a couple mass layoffs. I survived one, but did not survive the next one a few years later.

This is very general advice and you need to correlate it with other events, but it's been a pretty strong indicator something was up: Keep an eye on your manager's priorities especially if they shift in a ways you can't explain.

One example from early in my career: Our manager abruptly became much less interested in product status and overall progress. To his credit he scheduled a call (we were a remote office) a couple weeks later in which he said the following: "Commit your code. Ignore all policies and procedures. Work at your own pace."

We suspected as much, but that call was the confirmation. Ironically, the organization was so large, and the layoffs so huge, they had to arrange financing just to complete the layoffs. This led to a one to two month period where we were employed, but had nothing to do. It was really weird. Generally we'd come to the office, play a bit of Half-Life, then adjourn to my friend's basement to work on the BattleBot we were building.

At a recent company I was at, there was a lot of data in Grafana. A lot. The executives were acting weird so I created a graph comparing this year's revenue with last year's (no good news there). I predicted that layoffs were coming on the following Thursday. On the following Wednesday I came into work a little early and the big conference room was full of managers. Layoffs happened shortly afterwards (40% of the company).

When you have a one-on-one with your manager and the VP of Engineering or a HR person is there too, or when your team in another site is laid off and you hear it thru the grapevine instead of from your manager.

But for something more actionable, if your manager is constantly pressing you for "what happened with this one" when dates are slipping, or reminding you "you know, you're one of the highest paid people here..."

Unscheduled one-on-one early in the day, possibly with HR present, and your manager looks incredibly nervous.

Take a deep breath, go in, say nothing, sign nothing, demand your last paycheck. The decision has been made, and anything you say only hurts your case if you sue later.

My wife recently had a snap meeting communicated after hours, saying all staff have to be in the office and present at 8:30AM no exceptions. They didn't say why, and this was a small business (~15 people).

To anyone who has been working a while, that absolutely stinks of redundancies or other tough measures that have to be discussed en masse without rumours getting ahead.

Turns out they just hired someone new without telling anyone and wanted them to get up to speed so they don't look like a clueless bunch with bad communication. Meanwhile everyone in the office is worried they'll be the one fired.

If you can keep a bead on the welfare of the department you're working in if its a large corporation. Smaller startups, its usually pretty obvious.

My two examples:

Worked at a telecom company during the CLEC, deregulation days. Group of private investors devised a scheme whereas they would grow this small existing telecom company and then sell it off to a larger company and make millions. They had about $3M altogether invested. CEO burned through $2M in 6 months for stupid stuff like sky boxes at the local sports teams arena's and other frivolous stuff. Sales were slumping, we were getting a lot of calls from unhappy customers during installs. There were multiple closed door meetings with the investors. The funny part was the conference room had really thin walls and there were a lot of yelling during those meetings. You didn't have to be a genius to know whatever they had planned, wasn't happening. The final coffin was when one of the network guys told me he overheard one of the closed door meetings. He said the group was split on whether to continue the company, or fold up shop. Threats of lawsuits essentially ended the meeting and they all marched out of the office in a hurry. To me, I already felt like this wasn't going to last. Now I had confirmation and started planning to find another job.

I also worked at a huge corporation in their development department. We were a new team working on some big initiatives the company wanted to get going. Everything was going pretty smoothly. Then the recession hit in 2008. Then over the course of several lunches with various people in other departments, I found out several departments were having layoffs, reducing budgets, and putting projects on hold. Pretty soon, a lot of the teams we were working with which had dozens of people working on them, suddenly only had two or three developers. It really felt like the walls were closing in so I started looking. Literally the day I put in my two week notice, my manager said they were planning on putting our two projects on hold and laying everybody off within the next two weeks.

I think it just comes down to paying attention to what's going on around you. There's always signs things are not going well, you just have to recognize them when they present themselves. At both places, there were people who held on until it was too late. One of the techs at the telecom company said he came in one morning and the office was dark, and a security guard told him they had shut down the company and because of legal reasons, nobody could go in the office.

I'll add to the list. Be aware of org/process changes. For example, I was working for a company who had been acquired a couple of years earlier. They were transitioning from analog to digital, but were slower than most competitors and weren't doing too well. One day, there was an announcement that some of the merged sales channels were being un-merged. The writing was on the wall, the business unit was being separated in order to sell it off.

It was an easy few months to find another job, and sure enough a bit later the company was sold to a VC firm and then again to another corp. Things could have been fine for me, but I honestly didn't want to go through the two ownership changes. My lesson? The information usually isn't too hidden, you just have to understand the implications of the emails that you usually pass over.

At my previous company, I was caught in a mass layoff (best I can estimate is it was ~10 employees at a site with ~200? It's been 12 years and my memory is fuzzy). The company was known for annual layoffs of a handful of people, and the typical timeframe for it was approaching.

Around 4 or so weeks before, I started receiving unusual interest in projects I was working on, as in my 2nd line manager (boss's boss) dropping by to make various inquiries - how's it going, remember to write up some documentation/process, do you think you'll get to the XYZ portions). It was unusual since my supervisor and I didn't talk about that during our one-on-one meetings - a more natural flow would be for boss's boss to follow up on issues I raised with my boss, or for him/her to relay their questions through my boss, not for him/her to inquire directly.

Second oddity was that weekend or the next weekend. I stopped by the office for a few hours Sat morning, and saw another even higher level manager, maybe my 3rd line manager (can't remember who reported on up etc). But I was previously a direct report of the 3rd line manager so it wasn't weird to say hi and chat. They asked what I was doing there on a weekend and if anybody specifically asked me to come in. Well no... at the time I thought it was a little odd to ask that.

Third odd sign was I put in a vacation request for Fri and Mon two weeks in advance, and it got denied. With the reason "you are scheduled for XYZ class on that Fri", and oh, I hadn't heard that class was coming or I was added to it. It was weird because typically they'd send email and ask who is interested in XYZ, we're thinking of bringing in a class, of these days which is good, etc. To find out you are in a class next week by denying a vacation request? That was weird. I asked around various coworkers and nobody else was scheduled for that class or even knew it was coming. Big red flag.

Final sign was the Tue before, boss emailed and said I could have Fri off after all. No mention of Mon off too, and no mention of class details the Tue before the class.

I figured out the layoff day moved to Thu so I would get Fri off anyway and of course I would have Mon off too (boss slipped up not mentioning it).

And sure enough, I get in Thu, I hear rumors that layoffs are occurring. After checking email and seeing nothing, I went up to the sales area (errand to run) and saw a few employees in tears while packing up. I return and my boss is looking for me, asking where I was, and oh we need to have a meeting right now. 2nd line manager is there and someone else I didn't recognize (i.e. the HR rep). Suspicions confirmed as I looked in from the hallway.

If your startup org is bought by private equity. Run really really fast. Nothing you do will matter, staying is a lose lose proposition.

when the free coffee stops being free (for upcoming mass layoffs)

> Firing someone is the worst experience ever

I mean... yeah, it sucks, but have you tried being fired?

-I've tried both, and by a wide margin the worst was firing someone. (Doubly so as I was a low-level manager in a very hierarchical organisation, so I had little to no sway on who got the boot and not - I was basically handed a list over the employees who were to be fired and told to get on with it.

That was the hardest bit - I wasn't even able to tell them WHY they had been selected over others as I had no idea.

Then a few weeks later, they came for me, too.

I get that there's a lot of anxiety involved in firing someone. But at the end of the day (lol) you still have an office to go to tomorrow, they don't.

Source: Been on the receiving end of 2 layoffs (dot-bomb and covid), it _reeeaaaallllyyyy_ sucks to be fired in a down market, like "how am I going to feed my family, how much is in the bank, and when is the mortgage/rent due" level of suckage.

Yes, you still have a job. But you also have the knowledge that (even though it probably wasn't your fault), you just turned someone else's life upside-down, and you have no power to do anything about that. The person who was fired will probably get resolution in the form of a job somewhere else, but you'll rarely ever get to share in that resolution.

To clarify, the person losing their job has the bigger problem and are worse off. But the person doing the firing pays a cost as well, and between the two, getting fired is easier for me to handle than firing someone.

Layoffs are probably a little different because they're less personal, but I've not experienced those, so I don't know.

> I've tried both, and by a wide margin the worst was firing someone.

I've done both as well, and I agree. I'll take getting fired any day of the week over having to fire someone.

Frankly, it can be a liberating experience, releasing the ongoing feelings of certainty that things are not going right and uncertainty of what's going to happen. Better a horrific end than horror without end. Though that's coming from a privileged position of IT where it's reasonable to find a different job with acceptable (even if lower) pay relatively quickly. Of course, if it was a surprise firing, then it's bad all around; but firings should not be a surprise, they're an inevitable outcome when things aren't good, both parties know that things aren't good, and they have tried to make them good and it's not working out.

Being laid off is terrible. Getting fired is like a divorce -- it usually comes at the end of a long or intensely bad experience.

Is that based on the idea fired means for cause and laid off means not? Many people and jurisdictions say fired includes both.

The end of an intensely bad experience can be the beginning of another.

does being laid off count? i got laid off relatively early in my career and it worked out well for me. big severance for a nice month long vacation, found a new job in a few weeks and realized how underpaid i was, and learned to be jaded and cynical in all my interactions with a company from that point forward

It happened to me. The only signs leading up to it were asking me to use a project management tracker a few weeks before and my manager asking me a month before if I was happy working on the project I was on.

My output wasn't great, so I wasn't shocked, but I'd gotten so little feedback about it that I assumed that low output was normal. It was a small company, and they person doing HR said they had no idea it was going to happen, so I think it was a quick decision. I was pretty bitter because of that, and that I was 9 months in after taking a large pay cut, and no options vested yet.

That place went on to do random firings for a year.

Aye very similar at my last job -- got asked a month before that if I was happy, then got given a task with a slightly weird vibe about it that noone except the CTO (also my direct manager and the HR, was small company...) seemed to know I was doing. Same amount of time for me as well, 9 months. My output wasn't great either (I'd made an error taking the job, ignoring a series of red flags the CTO was waving in front of me in favour of getting experience with a specific tech stack, which was stupid, and I p much hated my life by that point). Place had done random firings before though (designer and a business support were in one day, gone the next), so not surprised, but hey ho.

I never know of a case when termination was coming out of the blue. I had to terminate a few dozen people over the past 20 years, it was not a surprise for anyone and many people even though "why did it take so long?" in some cases. In every single case was a problem with the recruiting (not interview) process. 15-20 years ago it was hiring the cheapest people possible, in the past 5 years it is hiring any people to meet diversity quota, in both cases skills were far from requirements and the desire to learn was almost zero.

I think it depends on your location. In the US, I think there is little to stop people being fired for any number of reasons including, "I don't think you fit in". In most of Europe, being fired is very rare because it usually requires a major malicious or negligent act and even then, you are more likely to be warned first.

If someone simply isn't working well enough for their role, there is usually some kind of capability process after which their employment might be terminated but we wouldn't usually call that being fired and if that is made clear in the job description and in regular feedback, I don't think most people would consider that unreasonable.

> WE screwed up in the interview process

Curiously how did you screw up the interview process?

Someone has foolishly voted your question down presumably because they don’t understand either. Look for my reply to the GP comment for some reasons why.

> the only reason I had to fire someone was because WE screwed up in the interview process.

Are you referring to some clerical error or is this assuming that candidates are only as good as they are at interview time and they're incapable of stepping up to the unexpected demands of a role?

> or is this assuming that candidates are only as good as they are at interview time

I'd assume they meant the opposite: candidates are at least as good as they are at interview time, so if they're not capable of filling the role, that ought to be obvious in a properly-done interview.

I did the same thing to someone after they just joined, figured it'd just come off as a joke and no harm would be done. Pretty soon in the following conversation I got the nagging feeling that it didn't come off as a joke.

I still feel terrible about that to the day, and that guy's been working here for years now.

Since he’s still there, he’s probably long shrugged it off but as you haven’t you could consider bringing it up. I doubt it would make him feel any better (or worse) but might make you feel better. And if he laughs it off it might really be a relief to you.

I remember the doctor called and wanted to speak to my ex wife and I jokingly talled her she got cancer. She didn't though, it was Aids. To this day I think my joke softened the blow for her a bit.

Used to work sales for a large corporation. One of the fun things the women did on our team was decorate our cubicles when people had birthdays. One morning they were laughing and having a good time decorating of the sales guys cubicle.

Their manager walked by and said rather flippantly, "I wouldn't bother doing that, he won't be here to enjoy it."

Haha, I did this to myself once. I had no idea, and seemingly no one I worked with had any idea, and we laughed a bit as I got up to "go get fired" at my meeting. Then I came back and had to explain that I was actually just fired.

Luckily I haven't been fired since, but that "joke" stuck with me.

It’s usually security policy to clean whiteboards after meetings.

Many years ago it got to be a standing joke in various places I’ve worked that if someone actually left a digram on a whiteboard, eg some bit of server infrastructure or UML, you’d add extra arrows pointing to “DOWNSIZING” or “EMPLOYEE REDUNDANCIES” bubbles.

Then one day I explained the old joke at a new gig and everyone in the room got really serious for a moment.

They told me that 6 monthish prior someone from senior management had left plans for the last downsizing round on a whiteboard and lots of people had seen it…

Yeah, that is pretty rough. I've been in similar situations and I tell my self to just try to be a better person today than to dwell over the past. I can't change what I've done but try to do better.


that's the worst thing to say to anyone, why would you do that?

How incredibly insensitive.

Maybe if they knew ahead of time, but they didn't, so it was just a joke, and in no conceivable way an insensitive one.

Being called to the manager's office is stress-inducing for most people and presumably the person was having issues in their role beforehand and was expecting something serious. To make a joke about such things is beyond callous.

As a more general advice - person in position of power should not joke about causing harm. Whether is is manager joking about firing employee, stronger person joking about beating up weaker one or parent joking about throwing child out of house when they misbehave. This kind of humor works only when it is coming from weaker position and even then only in certain situations.

Good general advice. Had a manager who would say to folks “you won’t get fired for xyz”. Even the mention of firing made the environment unpleasant. Now I fully appreciate how words can have a profound effect on morale.

There is a person in my management chain who makes occasional references to being fired along the lines of “If someone did X they’d be instantly let go.” I find that it makes for an uncomfortable work environment - I’ve never heard managers speak this way before. To be clear, I am not speaking about some bright-line issue that comes up in required training.

It makes me think that they are a weak “rules lawyer” type, who are more interested in always having plausible deniability/coverage of their own ass than actually leading their team.

As with everything there is a slight exception (doesn’t look like you were talking about this case): if someone jokes about doing something forbidden it’s proper for a manager to say “sorry, but I don’t like even joking about that because violating safety protocol/falsifying govt form X/paying a bribe even where it’s the country’s culture is grounds for immediate termination. Let’s just move on”.

Sometimes we joke about things to reduce fear, but sometimes joking about things normalizes them.

I do that sometimes. I'm being 100% serious.

I get bureaucrats talk about building slow and expensive process controls to prevent someone from doing something stupid. I counter with the fact that we don't need the controls because my employees know I will simply fire the person if they do it.

The inverse "we will support you for xyz" works just as well anyway.

I grew up in a region parents would randomly say something like the following to their kids on daily basis and I hated it:

- You’re eating too much and we can’t afford you, we will giving you to human traffickers for free.

- If you go out and play before finishing the homework you will be eaten by wolves.

- If you don’t obey the cops are going to arrest and execute you.

- Stay away from dogs or it will bite your pp off.

- Oh we thought you were useful when we found you in the trash can, it turns out we’re wrong and we’re going to throw you back.

And there are hundreds of variants or so. They must have an anti-fortune cookie database kept under their pillow… So pathetic.

Guess now you get to return the favor and spend a decade talking about sending them to the nursing home.

“If your grades don’t improve you are off to Military School.” Used to terrify me when I was really young because I believed everything they said. As I grew up and the threat never materialized I shrugged it off.

Cultures that think this behavior is ok are the fucking worst. I would never ever do that if I had a child.

It's okay! Anyone with 20 or so years' experience with the culture's “humour” will understand that it's clearly a joke. Duh. Stupid 10 year old for believing it.

I found the tone of voice most significant in this kind of situation. When it was “smiley, jokey”, I would get it was a joke – but even mock seriousness or, worse, exasperated parent, was completely credible.

Jesus, where did you grow up. Where I grew up we would make the first part of the joke but not the second. You are going to jail. Not "you are going to get shot in the head". Dogs biting dicks off?! America is too puritanical for that kind of imagery to fly.

Yeah, I should have guessed it sounds too much for fellow Americans. I'm sorry.

I grew up in Asia. I guess it's one of those cultural differences, like calling people "fatass" or drinking on the street without a shirt is not too inappropriate in some places. So people would have to shrug it off, try to adapt, and try to think those are just jokes without bad intentions. But still, it hurts and it does have life-long negative impacts on many people as far as I can see.

On top of that, I find people from better-educated families, or people from many other provinces in the same country don't share the same experience as us. My guess is economic and education status helps. From what I can see, the current generation of kids does receive substantially less abuse than say three decades ago.

The weird thing is, in my experience, a lot of managers don't see themselves as having power, or at least, aren't willing to use that power for others. Bad managers who don't go to bat for their reports, who joke about firing you while forgetting they can actually fire you, not helping advance your career in any way, etc.

I think that's the key dissonance here - that from the perspective of employees (which it looks like you're channeling here) managers have the power to fire people so it sounds like a real threat, but from the perspective of managers it's just making a fictional exaggeration because they know that they don't really have the power to unilaterally fire anyone without an excessive reason - in most organizations, unless they're the founder-CEO of a small company. They have been delegated some day-to-day administrative power from the corporation and HR with respect to their team, they have a voice and vote for hiring and firing, but they don't often have a veto vote for saying who is or isn't going to be in the team they have been assigned to manage.

Not helping you advance or making your life difficult, yes, managers can do that, but in general in all the organizations I've seen (in IT corps and finance; perhaps industries like e.g. fast food are very different) if a manager would really want to get rid of someone, it would take them months of "political effort" to try and do so (and they might still fail), because they really did not have that power to just fire someone.

Perhaps, but it's also worth noting the difference in visibility between employee/manager. For all the employee knows that "political effort" has been ongoing for the last few months and they were non the wiser.

I work at a large company with separate engineering/management tracks, and gaining any visibility into the business from the engineering floor is like pulling teeth. For example, I've been blindsided by reassignments that are technically voluntary but I know if I make a stink about them it'll hurt my reputation. I certainly wasn't consulted about the problem my re-assignment addresses until it was happening. That lack of context creates an environment where employees have to read the tea leaves from the drips and drabs of information they can get, a joke about firing would definitely prompt me to update my resume, just in case.

Totally agree with you on that.

However a slight variation about joking with kids that I find does work surprisingly well is the totally exhagerrated consequences. But it really has to be totally over the top and utterly unbelievable, the sillier the better. It simultaneously breaks the impending mood of conflict, makes them laugh, while somehow actually motivating them to do what they are resisting. We all know it won't be the real consequence of them (not) doing whatever, but it still seems to work. It's weird. Doesn't always work of course (nothing with kids ever does), but a variation on the theme has frequently helped.

I've often done that with my own kids, once tried it with a child at my work - trying to none with them - kid took it seriously and screamed the place down. No young kids get sarcasm, but lots don't get exposed to silliness and so will believe even ludicrous stuff from parents. That child taught me well!

I think people often underestimate the role trust plays in humor (with both kids and adults). This explains why some pretty awful jokes can be funny when coming from someone you know intimately but not from a stranger, and why your kids find it funny when you suggest xyz as a consequence, but someone else's is horrified.

Yes, agreed. In this case I think it was exacerbated by developmental stage too.

"Causing harm" is the kind of vaguery that makes people walk on eggshells when taken seriously enough. I agree there are things that managers shouldn't joke about, but I do think it's on us to be specific about topics and scenarios.

Or someone who routinely orders the killing of people, often killing innocents people, joking about murdering innocent people.


In school, we had a teacher who as famous for making jokes at the expense of others. One time during chemistry in front of the class he said to his most-liked pupil: "We have enough poison here to kill everyone in class. Well, except me and you, of course."

And that was the time the class decided to go to our head teacher and tell her that his jokes were not funny at all and she reported back that our chemistry teacher was surprised about how someone did not appreciate his brand of humor.

"Always punch up, never punch down"

Exactly. The article’s advice applies just as well if you’re a senior IC talking to a junior IC.

The problem with this is that everyone sees themselves as the underdog.

What about, "do no wrong"?

(Good) Jokes that punch up are funny, not immoral. It's really hard to make a good joke that punches down; seeing it pulled off makes me really respect (and kinda dislike) a comedian (and I've never seen a non-professional manage it).

(got it)

Yep, position of power implies relationship structure that brings completely different social dynamics than the equals. That’s also the exact same dynamics that makes something abuse or not abuse. The recent “Me too” movement was essentially based on it. I’m sure there could be another kind of “Me too” movement that’s not sexual but business or career centric.

No one told me this prior to becoming a manager, and I did make this mistake once and immediately regretted it.

It seems like obvious advice, but the circumstances where this sort of thing could happen are described very well in the article.

I revert to humour in awkward situations, like a lot of people, but I quickly realised that there are some things that you can’t joke about when in this position.

Thankfully I don’t think the team member took any offence by it (although how would I know) - we had a good rapport and relationship, but I immediately realised my “joke” could be taken so many different (wrong) ways that I made a conscious decision to be much more careful after that.

Like many things in life, it seems blindingly obvious in retrospect but not necessarily when you’re caught up in the moment.

Coming from an individual contributor perspective and watching new managers/poor managers go off on tangents - two others that are advisable to avoid are:

- Avoid all urges to make comparisons between your direct reports to your children no matter how relevant it may seem in your head

- Avoid referring to your direct reports as cats that need to be herded at the start of every meeting

The advice I give is pretty much: treat people like the professionals that they are. If they don't live up to your standards, then correct that through training, dismissal, whatever. But always treat them like the professionals they are.

Apologize, move on and hope for the best. Management is an art and mistakes (in hindsight) are bound to be committed. Never stop learning and don’t be hard on yourself.

You should be all business at work. It is your job after all. Work parties then become hilarious because all the humor is saved for special occasions.

I disagree - humor is really useful as a communication tool. If you are naturally inclined towards humor, don't suppress it entirely. I've found it useful once in a blue moon to indirectly make the point everyone is thinking but nobody wants to acknowledge. But more generally I've found it useful to put people at ease at the start of a meeting where I need people sharing ideas and feedback.

In my experience, there are two types of humor that should be avoided, which I learned the hard way:

* Punching down (including joking about doing harm from a position of power)

* Sarcasm/cynicism in public channels, especially when it's directed at specific people/teams.

Disagree. Working at a place where you are or can be genuine friends with coworkers is much more pleasant, and you can't be friends with someone if the only time you escape the sterile confines of the 'all business' relationship is at work parties.

A positive working environment where people can interact as humans do is the grease on the skids of productivity and creativity.

You can certainly have too much "party" in the office. But you can also not have enough.

Check out Humor, Seriously: Why Humor Is a Secret Weapon in Business and Life (And how Anyone Can Harness It. Even You.) by Jennifer Aaker and Naomi Bagdonas

My sincere thanks for the recommendation.

Then there are those bosses who do it on purpose, to just screw with you. I had one boss who was upset because we both submitted to present at a conference (VMworld) and I was selected, but he wasn't. He then declined the business paying for the trip, so I paid my own way, then he arrived at the conference, slipped past the guard the day I was presenting (I was first panel of the day and did a dry-run) and stepped up to a group of us talking after I had just finished and said, casually, "whew, what a long call I just got off, we were talking about your replacement."

I remember looking at the VMware guys I was with and their eyes were bugging out like WTF, did he really just say that. By this point I was used to his crap and kindof let it roll off me. After we got away one of them asked if I was okay and said screw the presentation--he'd go introduce me to some people :D I talked him through it and did the presentation anyway.

This boss was definitely toxic--he relished psych games, and at one point handed out copies of "The art of War" so we could all "brush up"--and as much fun as I was having working there (not because of this stuff), I finally did leave within a few months on my own terms. Never have I worked with anybody as toxic as that.

(After I returned I asked the CTO about the call the boss was on where they "talked about my replacement." The CTO scoffed at it, and said that call had no such conversation. In followups my boss backpedalled and said he just meant because I was going away for a few weeks and who would cover me during that time--of course that's what he meant).

Likewise, don't attempt to comfort people about their position when you don't actually know how likely they are to get fired.

I knew someone who had done this and the person was fired that day.

I'm sure he believed it, too, or he wouldn't have said it. But he apparently didn't have all the facts. He regrets saying it and told the story a few times while I worked with him.

On the flip side, I worked with someone who was doing poorly in their job (after having done better in the past) and tried to help them keep their job.

The longer it stretched on, the worse they did.

In the end, they lost their job and I found out afterwards that they thought we were attempting to gather enough data to fire them, when in reality there were a few of us that were actively trying to help them keep it, and even management didn't want them gone, they just wanted them to perform adequately again.

I often wonder if I should have been clear about the risk to their job, or if that would just have been seen as a threat instead. At this point, I don't think I'd do anything different.

Yep - a guy I shared an office with walked in and told me he had been wondering if he was going to get laid off. I comforted him and told him that I couldn't see why there would be lay-offs - we had tons of work to do.

He picked up everything off his desk and walked out. Turned out he had just been fired, but he had been told it was a lay off to soften the blow. I actually thought he should be fired but the problem had been going on so long and it was the kind of place that just never fired people, so I didn't even consider that possibility.

11 years ago, I think - I still wish I hadn't said anything. But I also wish he had been given candid feedback by his manager much earlier.

If he told you that he was worried about being fired, then you made the right choice of what to say. Imagine if you'd just shrugged. The only reason you'd respond that way instead of in a comforting way is if you thought there actually was a chance he'd be fired. He'd certainly realize after getting fired that you expected it and that because of that you must not think highly of him.

Well what I'm concerned about is that I think he was told "we have too many people, so we had to make the difficult decision to part with one of our great employees", and I effectively told him, "dude there's no way that would actually be the reason".

I appreciate the reassurance, though! Maybe I'm overthinking it, but I think the parent comment is right that it's better to just not say anything when you don't know the whole situation.

Don't Joke <about most things> is a good advice in general for management and leadership. You have to assume people will read into most of the stuff you say as you are their primary information conduit for anything related to workplace.

I would refine this advice to "sarcasm is never appropriate in an uneven power dynamic." Whether it's in the context of parenting, teaching or managing people. As a go-to form of humor, I've learned this the hard way. It's not actually helpful for folks to hear the hilarious monologue going on in my head when I'm feeling salty. There _are_ legitimately relationship-building funny things to say, but they're usually self-effacing and, at best, complementary to others.

I might further distinguish between sarcasm towards others versus sarcasm towards oneself. Most of my sarcasm is self-effacing, and I think that's generally okay with adults. (Less-so children.)

Having read many many court documents, I couldn't agree with you more.

I have seen literally hundreds of comments/jokes/emails/phone call recordings/etc taken out of obvious context and submitted as evidence - often to the detriment of the innocent. In the serious environment of a lawyers office or court room, or in the intentionally biased environment of social media - NOTHING IS FUNNY. All jokes are insensitive at best, or are at worst evidence of malicious intent.

Over the years, in my opinion, I have personally this phenomenon getting significantly worse.

We advise all our clients just not to make jokes, unless you're in private with very close friends/colleagues you trust. Never EVER make a joke or sarcastic comment in writing. Anything that can be misinterpreted, WILL be misconstrued, often intentionally, when any relationship sours.

In general, if you are or might become under any scrutiny whatsoever, golden rule #1 is: Shut the fuck up.

While I certainly agree that jokes are dangerous, they're also a key way humans form social connections! I do think a sense of humor is important for building a rapport with colleagues.

For peers at same level in their own setting that is indeed true. When with people that report to you, might not be a good idea because, one can't tell if even the laughter is genuine or obligated to.

There are some instances where it might potentially help - when your team is under stress (real or perceived). Light humor (if well done), might alleviate some of the tension in the room and let them focus on work.

As management especially, joke clearly. There is far more weight on you to not mislead than for the "keep a serious atmosphere" that some might take it as

You have to be careful. Relationships sour, and nothing is funny when read in court.

One thing is for certain, NEVER put jokes or sarcasm in writing.

I've read way too many of those in court.

Many ordinary social interactions have become sins recently. Saying anything that could be interpreted as offensive poses a very real risk to your career, the list of potentially offensive things is incredibly long, and gets longer with each passing moment as novel outrages pop up in all corners of the world.

You can still be kind, empathetic and polite to everybody you work with. But avoiding authentic personal relationships at work is very sensible, along with having very clear personal boundaries. Normal colleagues can form cliques of people they trust, but it’s not a great outcome for management to be participating in that, even though that’s what usually happens.

But inappropriate jokes about firing people and the like are not "ordinary social interactions" with aspects "that could be interpreted as offensive", they are an objectively oppressive and distressing behaviour that even the least upset subordinates of such a manager recognize as inappropriate.

I’d agree that this is usually true. But the comment I was replying to is about jokes in general.

I don’t know why this is being downvoted - it’s good advice. You should adopt a “work persona” that elides the riskier elements of your true self.

“Bring your true self to work” and other modern workplace nonsense is risky advice to take seriously. It’s mostly a coded communication that does not mean what it appears to on the surface.

I led a team of about 65 engineers at my previous job. One of things that became apparent at around the 20 mark was that rumors spread so quickly and a comment I didn't think twice about crystallized into "marching orders" very quickly.

Make jokes, it helps build rapport with people you spend so much time with! But be careful about the message you convey, people will run wild with it overnight.

The greater the risk the better the laugh.

Depends on what you are going for.

It's weird, I have worked at many organisations - and at almost none of them did my manager have the ability to fire me. Is this an American thing?

In most of these orgs, getting rid of someone is kind of hard work, usually involving a lot of HR. A manager would have much more luck getting you moved to a different team.

In medium/large companies, 99.9% of employees can be fired at the end of a HR process and that HR process is something only their line manager can start.

And while transferring an inept employee to another manager might save you some paperwork, it'll make that manager an enemy (unless the employee's performance is much improved by the move). So many managers would do the paperwork.

> In medium/large companies, 99.9% of employees can be fired at the end of a HR process and that HR process is something only their line manager can start.

True but note in the US this isn’t for the same reasons that happens in (for example) Europe.

Big companies are better to sue than small companies (they have more money) and were you really fired because you never got any work done or because your manager simply didn’t like you because of something you didn’t control or because they didn’t tell you what you were supposed to do? So the company lawyers and HR people put together a long list of things to go through to make such suits hard to file.

One of those processes are to put people “on a plan”: written warning with super-explicit instructions of what to do. I’ve found in a couple of cases this has been the (final) wake up call that has made someone get back on track. But what sucks is that most companies just treat it as a check off item: once someone is on a plan they can never recover.

Also when the problem is the manager, feedback rarely flows in that direction.

A personal improvement plan is not a fun thing to be on :(.

That said, I do wonder how much the perception of them is skewed by their lack of visibility -- of the cases where I have been aware of a PIP, the only one which was had any real visibility in the wider org was the one where the person ended up leaving the company.

It's entirely plausible that my employer is one of the better ones, though. And even then, I've seen (what appeared to me to be) abuses. One of the things that can come out of a manager putting someone on a PIP is that it's actually the manager who is in the wrong. It takes a good HR team to recognise that, though.

It’s important for the success of the individual that the PIP not be public.

I don’t know if you meant that or not so thought I’d mention it.

From the perspective of that HR process, they generally care about the employee as much (or as little) as about that manager. A manager may start some process, but HR might as well consider that it's better (or easier?) for the organization to replace that manager instead of replacing that individual contributor.

I'm not sure I've ever heard a story where a manager attempts to fire someone, but HR decides to replace the manager instead. Is that something you've seen? I only hear stories about managers being protected as hard as possible by HR.

Yes, I have seen unit-level "personality conflict" situations being resolved by firing the line manager.

It's important to note the distinction between "manager" and "management". In larger organizations an entry-level worker is x levels away from top management, and a first level line manager is x-1 levels away from top management, where x is 5-10 i.e. they are quite far from management and very close to the actual worker.

In a large company, from the perspective of actual decision makers or HR, a first level line manager or a team lead is just a slightly different job description of anonymous interchangeable peon. You have a hundred customer service representatives and a bunch of CS teamleads; you have fifty small branch offices/stores/warehouses/whatever and so you have fifty mostly interchangeable branch managers. Their role is supervising the team and executing the assigned goals and policy with minimal influence on it - any actual policy is set by that manager's boss boss or higher; any policy exceptions are likely to require approval from that manager's boss or higher, etc. Of course, if you have only a hundred or so people in the whole organization, then it's different, and most organizations are small or medium enterprises - but quite a few people do work in large corporations.

I've seen it only once. One manager, not in my department, had a high turnover. Staff were either fired, quit, or transfered. Senior management eventually stepped in and discovered this guy was pretty toxic. But they couldn't simply fire him. Since he was well-connected in the industry they gave him time to find another senior position.

In any remotely sane company, HR does what management says. The manager may well be replaced, but it's the manager's manager or someone even higher in the food chain who makes that call, not HR on their own.

They way I've seen it, the manager's manager formally makes the call, but they wouldn't really know the other person involved (they would just work with their subordinate managers) nor the details of the particular problem. If they care, then they would get into the details and perhaps fire whichever of the two is actually at fault; but if they don't care much (which I've seen happen, especially in more lower paid/mass market positions), they would rubberstamp whatever HR says - especially since it's not that unlikely that the conflict will escalate into a complaint (no matter if real or not) about discrimination or workplace abuse, and so from the perspective of that manager's manager it's very important that a Proper Process gets followed and (for many jobs, though usually not for IT jobs) not that important to them about who stays and who leaves afterwards, as HR will just get an equivalent replacement.

HR has their own obligations to the people they report to. If they can't justify the manager's suggestion without sticking their necks out to a degree they're comfortable with they probably won't.

They'll mostly side with the manager (because selection bias, not a lot of managers are bringing them cases of people they want fired where that outcome is not compatible with the processes) but may very well tell a manager to just deal with it if that's what's "doing their jobs" looks like.

Things like this are never as black and white as people looking for cheap upvotes make them out to be.

I don't think we're disagreeing here? Of course HR can and will push back if (say) firing somebody without proper CYA could result in a lawsuit, but the point is that HR is not the one initiating any firing -- that has to come from management.

In what world would that be better? I manager tries to fire a bad performer and now the org is down a manager and keeps a bad IC?

In general, in larger organizations with formal processes, HR would look into the situation instead of simply accepting the manager's assertion about someone being a bad performer.

For example, it may be quite clear even from externally looking at other reports (e.g. data from "360-degree reviews" or whatever internal evaluation process the corporation uses) that the consensus around the team is that the person is not a bad performer, but that the team lead has had recorded "problems with cooperation" - in that case, escalating the conflict with an IC to HR may easily be the breaking point that causes the team lead to be removed.

The uniquely American thing (compared to your perspective, at least) is you can get fired for almost any reason, or no reason at all [0]. In any case, whether that decision technically comes from the manager or the manager filling out paperwork which is then approved by HR, or if the manager is merely being used as the bearer of bad news, etc., I think is beside the point.

0 - https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/At-will_employment

Yep, it’s usually not possible for a manager to unilaterally fire you here either. However, a manager who has built up trust, by delivering and building a strong team, can tremendously influence that process.

I think it depends on the size of the organization. At a medium-to-large company, there will almost certainly be an established process involving HR.

At a small company, there is often no such thing as HR, and your manager often has the direct power to fire you.

They can start the process. Once that process is started your career inside the company is basically over. Even if you survive it (and/or survive the PIP) you will not want to work there anymore. May as well be fired at that point.

It's not possible at most companies in the US either, although of course, your manager would have a lot of influence on the decision.

In most US States the company’s ability to fire you is hardly constrained just as your ability to quit is unconstrained.

Everywhere in the US you can’t be fired for your country of origin or due to age (these aren’t always easy to prove of course) but, for example, if the boss decided to get rid of all left-handed people one day that would be perfectly legal.

As a Brit who has been both managed and manager in the UK, Scandinavian and Europe for 2 decades, my first thought was also, "wtf, this must be a US thing".

When managing people, why on earth would joking about firing people even cross your mind?

The other comments are talking about the American-ness of the firing, so I will also say that this is (in my mind) a particularly American brand of humor.

It's very, very standard for people to make sarcastic/ironic/teasing jokes in this vein as a way of trying to break tension or lighten the mood.

Not really what you asked, but maybe relevant.

In the places I've worked (always in the U.S.), although there may be a procedure the managers have to go through when firing or laying off someone (which does involve HR), I believe it is often considered part of the manager's job to be the one who personally delivers the bad news.

Depends on the type of contract they have. There’s a bunch of people that are on recurring 3 month contracts that can be let go at the end of each period.

The permanent employees however… better be prepared for a year long process.

You can be moved to a bad batch team where you are put on a performance improvement plan that is impossible to satisfy and then be fired. Pretty simple workaround.

Ok, that's nice. I'm sure some people do it carelessly but lets at least be honest and acknowledge that many also do it deliberately. It's an easy and cowardly way to assert your dominance. If you get called out on it, and you won't, you'll just say you were joking. When you're not called out on it it's a easy way of reminding people that you can do it. Maybe not now but maybe in the future when you're not feeling so generous.

I remember a job interview where the interviewer launched into a story, unprompted, about firing someone. Didn't express any regrets or sympathy for the person. That interview was over that second. Maybe that person was the most deserving person in the world to get fired but just the fact that he thought it was something to be discussed with an interviewee spoke volumes.

I have been mentioning in interviews that I had to fire an employee. It was very hard for me to fire the person and I really do not wish to have to repeat that experience so I try to warn the candidates.


Our company is fully remote. One of the clause on the contract of each employee is no moonlighting. They are not allowed to work on anything else professionally. They can work on personal software project if they notify me in advance. This is because in a fully remote companies there are not office hours and it's very hard to define what's work and what's not.

Employee Alice worked for us 3 months. She was not very responsive but her work was a 7/10. One day I found Alice was actually part of an agency and she was actually a Project Manager delegating all her work to other people. I noticed this because she had a MacBook but screenshots of her work were on Windows. When confronted she straight out denied the whole thing. After finding many more evidence she finally admitted she had delegated work to some "friend". I fired her with her pleading it was all a big misurderstanding. It was terrible, I felt so bad because even though I had found a lot of physical proof of her deception she was still playing the card of "please no really it's a misunderstanding". I doubted myself a lot fearing I had indeed fired an innocent person just being paranoid.

Now when I hire new employees I underline the NO MOONLIGHT policy and tell them I had to fire an employee in the past. It was ugly and I wish to not have to redo that.

I'm a single founder software engineer growing a team and having to deal with management for the first time. I'm unsure of most of my decisions. If you have some advice that you can give me in a kind fashion without making me feel even more inadequate that I already do it might help me become a better manager.

Since you've explicitly asked for advice, the only way to assess remote employees is by what they're delivering. If you employ them for 40 hours a week, but they can deliver what you're asking in 5 and still be responsive when needed, is there really a problem?

If they're also doing another job on the side, but it isn't impacting their delivery of the work you're asking for, that shouldn't be a problem. By doing away with a (largely unenforceable) policy of no moonlighting you also avoid the problem of having to fire people for breaching it.

I'm borderline on whether Alice here was even at fault. She is likely in breach of her contract for several other things, I assume there's a routine NDA in place which probably means that she shouldn't be sharing confidential company information with outside parties, but if not and she was getting work delivered is it really a problem if she did so by being good at project management rather than software development?

>assess remote employees is by what they're delivering

I agree but that is easier said than done. Software is very intangible and creative and I do not have experience in managing other developers.

One of my employees is a university dropout with 3 years working experience from a developing country and is the only developer other than me. I have no clue what's the amount of code he's suppose to deliver. I have very little metrics of reference to work with.

It's a really unethical thing to do, and you don't want unethical people working at your company.

If you want that much control over your employees you're going to get employees that allow you to take that much control over them. It's the new "pay peanuts, get monkeys"

No moonlighting, screenshots, this quote "This is because in a fully remote companies there are not office hours and it's very hard to define what's work and what's not"

Someone good enough to do exactly what you need is not the sort of person that only does exactly what you need. You're only interviewing people that didn't rule you out

I wouldn't tell them the story about having fired someone. You can simply state your no moonlight policy and be done with it. There is a credibility problem. They're hearing the story from the person that was involved and only that person that they don't know, and who has a high motivation to be dishonest in how they present it in that situation.

Imagine the person sitting there. This person who I don't even work for yet is starting off with telling me about how they fired someone. Are they telling the truth? Do they really feel bad about it? Maybe it's his way of letting me know that this is the way things are around here and he knows he can't come right out and say, "I love to fire people" so he's just trying to soften it. Why's it still on his mind? Does he have a hard time letting things go and holds grudges?

How would you feel if you took someone out to dinner and on your first date started telling you some story about how bad they felt about dumping their last romantic partner? Sure maybe it was the right thing to do. You're not going to feel better about them. The best you can hope for is you don't feel worse about them. It's all down side where the best you can hope for is a neutral. If you're playing a game where the best you can do is lose or draw it's better to just not play the game. Don't talk about firing people.

> Our company is fully remote. One of the clause on the contract of each employee is no moonlighting. They are not allowed to work on anything else professionally. They can work on personal software project if they notify me in advance. This is because in a fully remote companies there are not office hours and it's very hard to define what's work and what's not.

> I'm a single founder software engineer growing a team and having to deal with management for the first time. I'm unsure of most of my decisions. If you have some advice that you can give me in a kind fashion without making me feel even more inadequate that I already do it might help me become a better manager.

My feedback: drop the terrible policy. It's not legal in California for a reason.

But doesn't Google and many other tech companies in the silicon valley own all the code you write as a developer while employed? That's kind of a no-moonlighting policy.

Extremely important advice. Add to that: push upper management for change details, keep timelines and punctuality, define delivery, be up front on status and results, go home at a reasonable hour, take people to lunch or otherwise spend time with them, make your team appointments your number one priority, and praise publicly/coach privately.

Can you elaborate more on what you mean by "define delivery"?

If I tell a guy to make me a table, and he puts his heart and soul into making me a beautiful wooden dining table, then when he shows it to me I tell him I actually wanted a glass coffee table and would he please start over from scratch, throwing his work away will be very bad for his morale.

That's not to say requirements can't change - of course they can. But they shouldn't change just because I forgot to make myself clear the first time.

If you're leading a software team, championing a clear definition of "done" for the team and business partners (usually collaboratively). Other teams have analogous targets. There are some teams where the "work" resists completion.

What do you mean by "change details"?

Often policies get set in place and in motion before they filter down, and impact is not understood.

Either communicating the course, or if upper management fails in their duties, charting the course and communicating, is essential.

For example, "we will deprecate this technology by XX date, and we have cleared the path to enable this" is often essential to success. In a healthy org, telling people what you're doing, how you're doing it, and why you're doing it is as necessary as when you're doing it.

Just like you don't want to release every feature all at once, you similarly don't want to muck up your infrastructure (physical or business).

Here's another one that's a bit less obvious: anytime you're scheduling a 1x1 with a report, ALWAYS mention the reason for the meeting. You might think it's obvious or that it's just a normal meeting, but you have no idea how the other person will take it.

Yeah, I have a close family member who was a manager. Got called in to a meeting expecting to present a monthly report and basically got fired. Traumatised to this day.

"Come to my office for a 1:1 at 3:30. You're getting fired."

The problem with always mentioning the reason is that it then stands out when you don't. Sometimes there is something unpleasant to discuss that you can't put in a meeting invite.

One could argue that the firing decision should be communicated in a meeting intended to discuss either some incident that causes the firing or a previously scheduled meeting on the progress (i.e. lack of it) a performance improvement plan or some equivalent. Firing should not be arbitrary, there's some reason for it that the person would/should know, so that reason (whatever it may be) is a reasonable topic to mention in the meeting invite.

When I was instructed to deliver someone's layoff paperwork I had to do this. I scheduled a meeting with the guy with no good purpose, just a meeting in a weird room nobody usually uses for meetings (we were laying off a lot of people). He immediately asked me what it was for, and of course I couldn't answer. He knew then exactly what it was about.

To expand - every meeting should have a clear agenda that is communicated beforehand. How can anyone expect to be prepared for a meeting if they don't even know what it's about? Spend the 60 seconds it takes to put a description on your meeting request.

Signed, someone who works at a company with a culture of sending blank meeting invites

Yeah. At least twice I got called into a higher-up's office, shut the door, and then they talked about something totally normal that didn't need to be private because the rest of the team was also working on it.

I freeze up sometimes when my flatmate says to me "Hey I'd like to talk to you about something" and then waits a few seconds before bringing up something totally everyday thing that's not a complaint, while I've already flicked through my mental rolodex of possible co-living infractions several times for candidate complaints.

+1 to this being a bad habit. Even when it's not vaguely threatening (which is the default), it's still annoying.

When on the receiving end of a contextless meeting request I usually say, "Sure, what do you want to talk about?"

I think this falls under the general "don't threaten the relationship." Whether it's joking about firing, saying "maybe we should just get divorced", joking a child was an accident etc. When things get stressful people often reevaluate comments in their new emotional state and what might have felt like a joke could become a threat. Subsequently instead of working to solve a problem for a situation they trust, people often work for self preservation.

I run a Mastodon instance and every time one of my users posts a really, really terrible pun there is such a strong temptation to say "oh god that was terrible, you're banned forever". And then I stop and think about how a few of the people on there have some really bad social anxiety, and I find some other way to say "holy shit that was a terrible pun, well done".

It's a similar thing, I think. I'm unexpectedly in a position of power over my friends and I want to efuse it with jokes.

I feel that it's sad this even needs to be advice. I'd think it should be obvious, but we miss "obvious" things, every day.

Management is, way too often, treated as a "privilege," and a "reward."

I was a manager for 25 years. I never felt "privileged," and I considered it a "curse."

I hated every damn minute of it, but I kept doing it, because I am a control freak, and couldn't trust anyone else to do a better job. I also avoided getting promoted, because I didn't want to leave my team in the hands of the other managers I knew.

Most of my peers and superiors provided object examples in what not to do.

In my experience the issue arises not because managers are treating the position as a privilege. Rather the opposite. A regular person one day becomes a manager. They feel the same today as the day before. They feel the new power is fake, or theoretical. It becomes easy to joke about this power. In their head the joke is funny because of irony. "How could I have power? I'm just a regular person."

A further issue is the mismatch in weight given to their words over their intention. Even I hit this, once my employee told me he gave strong weight to a point I had casually mentioned. For once in my life someone remembered what I said better than me. It was a bit worrying, as my exact comment had been meant to be a minor point.

Thankfully I knew prior to "getting power" to, as I word it, "never make jokes which imply a power structure". As the listener can never truly know if the joke was speaking to an unsaid idea.

Good point.

Anyone who doesn't see how this might happen to a newly promoted manager lacks imagination.

It's the same thing that manager might have said the day before as a peer as a sort of grim humor, but is now suddenly off limits. Hell, there is the possibility the relationship is good enough that it is still funny.

My advice for new programmers: Don't use expletives in any log message, debugging alert, or even code comments. The chance of this coming back to haunt you is not worth the momentary satisfaction it gives you.

Agreed. I once worked for a company that built custom e-commerce sites. One of our clients decided to bring development in-house, and wanted the codebase for their site. I had to go through every source file line by line to remove all of the expletives the core team had put in the comments before handing over the code.

You ever grep the linux codebase for expletives? Give it a shot some time.

I wouldn't make it at a company that frowns upon a 'God Damnit' in a log message.

"I wrote this under duress" is my favourite comment I've personally left, mostly so the poor bastard who maintains that code after me doesn't hate me quite as much.

It's still not a good practice. Customers do sometimes see log files and when they do it's because things are broken and they're typically not in a good mood.

Perhaps you have a highly orthodox individual as a user, should they be forced to read or even repeat a 'God Damnit' in a log or error message while on the phone with support? Should an atomic-bomb survivor be told that their files were nuked?

I probably wouldn't either. It's not that I wouldn't like to write those things, or enjoy reading them in the tribulations of those who'd been there before me. The problem is more when it reaches a customer via some error prompt which you modified for debugging or some logging output which ends up in their console.

Darn, I made the mistake once and never again, the face of the CEO pointing at the word "PENIS" on the site was a good enough lesson I guess.

I guess it was as lucky as you can get since we had made the joke together and I just forgot to delete it. Still remember the code, I thought I was sooooo funny. I apologize on behalf of my former self.

*:after { content: 'PENIS'; }

This is good advice, I was in an interview and was asked why "add the X shit" appeared in one of my commit messages in my personal github repo.

I always laugh when I remember my old manager calling a meeting where he talked about our product not being profitable and us needing to pull out all the stops to fix that, including reducing the headcount, and then being shocked and angry that someone had started a "rumor" about layoffs. He had meant through attrition, but it was a misinterpretation that I think should have been predictable in context. If you're in a position of authority you have to be careful about what messages you send.

It is a very good advice. The general advice is really to be professional in the workplace. Don't make a joke, unless it is during lunch and you are trying to tell a real joke.

Don't use silly variable names, or add jokes or profanity into your code or documentation.

Sooner or later it will surface and there is NOTHING quite as embarrasing as showing a unknown third party or a manager something on the screen that screams immaturity.

That doesn't mean you shouldn't be able to have fun at the workplace, because you should. Also it makes life at work much easier if everyone has fun- just be professional and respectful.

Also, sometimes you do slip up. Don't be afraid to apologize. It is ok. It is human to make errors, but learn from your mistakes and move on.

Watch Band of Brothers for more solid leadership advice. My favorite: "Never put yourself in a position where you can take something from these men."

Funny you bring that up. Rewatching this with my wife - haven't seen it in... 18 years? That's one of those lines that has stuck with me the last couple days (midway through so far). Really, much of the last 5 episodes are a blur - I can't digest all the violence. But that line just sticks out. Any others that have stuck with you?

None specifically, but since I've been managing a team of 9 engineers during the pandemic I certainly sympathize with Nixon becoming an alcoholic.

It's also an interesting show to watch as you progress in your career. Winters always wants to be part of the action, but is told to hold back and trust his men as he advances in rank. There's lessons there for anyone transitioning from individual contributor to leader.

Isn't joking about firing people (not to mention actually firing people) one of the most common ways that managers assert and reinforce their dominance in the social status hierarchy?

In most companies, managers' greatest power (besides controlling subordinates' movement, actions, privacy, and access to amenities such as light, heating/cooling, quiet environments, restrooms, etc.) is their largely unlimited power to simultaneously deprive subordinates of their livelihood, health insurance, social relationships, and social status.

Ed Zitron suggests that maintaining this social dominance and control over subordinates is typically the underlying (and primary) reason why managers want employees "back in the office":


Something I learned the hard way at the student newspaper is that the word "Fired" has some very strong psychological implications in US English -- it implies someone no longer has a job because of something bad they did.

We got some strong negative feedback about a headline saying that people had been "fired" when the story was that a kind of lab technology had become obsolete and a number of lab technicians had been laid off. I had signed off on the headline, was responsible, and have never forgotten.

People take their jobs very seriously; it's the thing we choose to do -- or have to do -- instead of being with our families and friends. And "fired" is one of the strongest words in our language. We need to be sure we understand what we are doing when we use it.

My initial reaction was that's so obvious that surely it doesn't need to be said. Then I remembered the first two people I ever hired (who were friends) and that I made that joke within the first two weeks.

Nothing bad came of it, but it does show how easy it is to do.

Better advice - rent The Office and do the exact opposite of everything Michael Scott does.

(No throwing stars or nunchucks either.)

There is an old adage- there are hidden truths in humor. Do you want to plant that "truth" on someone?

My experience is, never state your powers. People already know your reach, but sometimes, they don't. It happened to me in a multinational ecommerce giant where employees started to feel they were bosses. The relationship with the managers started to scalate badly, there was no respect at all. The feeling back then was "what, are you gonna fire me?" and so on. Projects went crazily bad and devs blamed management, when management was totally crippled. Instead joking or stating my power, I went to my boss and asked the head of the guys causing problems. My boss asked me if I could just let it pass, and I did it, 4 times. Until I said it was me or them. Then my boss asked me to do what i wanted. What I did, instead of firing them, I moved them out of the team to a newly created useless team. They were shocked, because I didn't fired them. They bragged about they now have their own special team, lmao, i remember how they've believe they gonna change the company, until 2 months of nothing todo from their side, no other teams wanted them, no other teams wanted even to share projects with them. They came back to my teams begging to join again, they will do everything is asked for, no more nagging, etc. I think it was better than fired them, to be honest.

Oh man, I had to sit through something like this one time. I was at a resort in the Pacific with my spouse. It was on a tiny island, and there were 2 restaurants that were the only places you could eat. One was a moderately priced restaurant you'd go on most nights, and the other was a very fancy restaurant that only sat 8 people at one large table, so you had to book it the day you got to the resort as it always filled up. The chef made the food right in front of you and you got to meet and interact with a few other couples at the resort.

The chef was a young woman of color, and the resort manager, and older white woman who was everyone's boss was from the country that had colonized the island. The boss decided to insert herself into the dinner because some friends of hers were staying at the resort and were at the restaurant that night. She dominated the conversation the entire night, and repeatedly made jokes about firing the chef. It was incredibly awkward and made an otherwise fantastic meal horrible. We wrote a letter to the resort about how awful the experience was. I don't know what eventually became of it, but I hope it made some sort of difference.

I usually do the opposite. Sometimes when someone I manage asks me how things are going, I jokingly tell them I'm trying my best not to get fired. I find it helps break the ice, and shows them that other people are struggling with that same insecurities. Reading some of the comments on here I'm now concerned that such comments might also amplify a general latent fear of getting fired, so I'll probably stop doing this.

Yeah probably best to not make it about being fired—since your boss is ultimately their boss—makes them wonder when the axe might come for them next… That said I’m definitely a fan of some self-depreciating humor to help others relax and build rapport. Humor can be a wonderful tool really.

People in positions of authority often don't realize how outsized the impact of their words are. As peers, things people would take as jokes now are taken much more seriously. Employees will read between the lines on anything said, body language, etc from their management. It's important to reinforce team security and trust, and be very self aware about how you sound.

> When people get promoted to manager their former peers become direct reports. It’s awkward.

Don't do this. Promote and put them over another team.

Only works if you have multiple teams with similar specializations. Often even in quite reasonably sized companies you have many teams that are the only ones doing that thing in the organization and you need a team lead who knows the exact thing the team is doing, so you either promote from within the team or hire from outside (which has its own problem of communicating to the team that they have no possibilities for advancement unless they go to work for a competitor).

Generally this blog has a startup slant - can't always

What about quitting? I always joke about quitting

If one of my reports were joking about quitting, I would at least consider whether they were in a ha-ha-only-serious mode, and probably bring it up at our next 1:1. I don't think there's as much risk of hurting someone personally if you joke about quitting, but i do think it's an easy way to attract potentially unwanted attention/conversations with your manager!

I know a person who started joking about leaving if they gave him a pile of money and showed him the door. He was super valuable to the company and very senior. New CEO and VPs come in and start demanding cuts. A couple of months later, guess who was given a pile of money and shown the door?

Always strange that 'cuts' often involve spending more money. I guess the size of the pile is relevant, and I get that it's offset against potential future cost/commitment.

Person X at $100k is given ... $40k to quit now, because it will save company perhaps $260k in the next 2 years. But.. that $40k is coming from somewhere now, no? Maybe some is coming from other folks cut immediately without the big pile of cash?

This might be related to a business truth that I learned the hard way...

It's generally cheaper to make a single larger payout than to engage in recurring smaller payouts.

Generally speaking the payouts I’ve seen amount to about 3-4 months of salary, so the timeline to break even is fairy obvious (less the cost of benefits, which shortens the timeline).

Ditto with layoffs. 2-3 months salary to get rid of employees you can’t afford at the moment is a short payoff compared to salaries, and worth it to salvage some reputation for future hiring.

That can be to make a company look good on paper when seeking some kind of investment round. "Sure, we have some big capital expenses this year, but our operating budget for the future is X% smaller"

I frequently see short-term decisions to get funding triumph over long-term planning when private investors are involved. And it might even be the right choice - grow and get all the funds, then clean up tech debt in future years. It can be frustrating, but is a valid business play.

Cheaper in the long-run is an important consideration.

Most large companies set aside money for layoffs in their financial filings under one-time expenses. They will usually explain what impact the layoffs will be expected to have on profitability.

The reason you don't joke about firing someone is because of the power imbalance. The employee will usually be in a bad spot if they actually are fired, and the company will be fine (usually better off, even). Furthermore, there's no real recourse on the employee side. If they are offended by the joke they can't really complain, because if the boss is so tone deaf as to joke about firing, they're unlikely to take criticism like that well.

No such power imbalance exists with an employee joking about quitting, but I also struggle to think of any situation in which it's actually a funny joke to make.

>The employee will usually be in a bad spot if they actually are fired, and the company will be fine (usually better off, even).

Boss, to employee: "I'd just like you to know that I'd never joke about firing you. I recognise that it would be needlessly cruel because, although you're reliant on the company to earn a living, the company would actually be better off without you." D:

If the company is firing someone it's [probably] because they're in a better position without them. I probably could have phrased it better but it's somewhat tautological so I didn't think it would be that offensive of a statement :)

Depends on company morale. I wouldn’t make that joke if people are on edge and worried that you might quit.

In my opinion, joking about quitting is about as good of an idea as joking about firing someone. I wouldn't even advise talking about quitting in any way unless you've already made the decision to quit (and even then, it's not a fantastic idea).

not a lot of upside to jokes like that. it's not wildly funny, and it might freak someone out.

How is it funny that your manager tells you as a joke that he is gonna fire you?

The truth it: neither of them is a joke. It's just pure BS that comes either out of sheer and innocent incompetence or stupidity.

I didn't say it was funny. I also think joking about firing people 1. isn't funny, and 2. risks freaking people out.

A good rule of thumb is "don't make gambles where the best-case scenario is that nothing bad happens."

I think I misread your comment :)

I think that another way to prevent it is by asking yourself if the other person will find it funny.

That's a general advice not just specific to firing/leaving a company.

This is excellent advice. I have witnessed this on several occasions, and it's always cringe-worthy to witness and harmful, if not to the recipient, then to one or more observers, who more often than not have to suffer in silence. My most benevolent interpretation is that this is just a low-effort attempt at humour, poorly judged and which has gone wrong.

It doesn't take much thought, really, to consider that the office may provide employees a welcome change of scene from their own swirling domestic situation, and to have one leak into the other like this may be quite upsetting.

I have promised myself that if/when I witness this again, I will take the opportunity to tell the manager in question that his/her remarks were damaging to their own standing, and that they would do well to apologise ASAP, be that in private or in public.

Be a leader of people and times [1], not simply a manager of issues and tasks.

[1] as in, "experiences"

Oof, I feel this. I've made so many dumb mistakes in management gigs, which is normal and just a part of learning any skill, but it's so much more painful when your dumb mistakes are with other people and their jobs. It's not like leaving out a comma where you just feel silly for a second, recompile, and immediately triumph and move on. No, now your mistakes hurt other people's feelings, create awkwardness, diminish morale... although the upside is that if you can deal with your mistakes skillfully, you (somewhat paradoxically) end up strengthening relationships and your team. But jeez, becoming a new manager is an act of serious courage and humility. (And if it doesn't feel that way at first, it will soon whether you like it or not!)

The same advice applies to all managers, not just new ones.

sorry for folks working under this at-will employment where managers can just fire someone. In Germany, it involves consultations with HR, workers council etc. before you can fire someone. Most tech companies use packages to get rid of people.

Even for those of us lucky to have a proper processes protecting us, it can still be anxiety inducing.

After all, you're still likely to have to spend time and energy to defend yourself in some capacity, and you now think your manager isn't going to (or might not) have your back, either now or if something is going to happen in the future.

At my last job there was a chatbot with a !fire command. That would track how many times it had been used on a given subject. 'chatbot fires printers for the fifth time!'

It was incredibly toxic when applied to humans.

One of my favorite bosses joked about everything and was totally irreverent, even on topics of firing.

Everyone loved them because they did it with a candor that was always very obviously not serious it was disarming.

Given the nature of the work we did was very high risk, the disarming was welcome. Being fired was nowhere near the worst case outcome if we didn't do our jobs well, so joking about anything was fair game if it helped relieve some tension.

Be careful not to create environments where people have to add walking on eggshells to their already long list of difficult responsibilities.

Along the lines of this advice, I've been trying to find an article I read at some point in the past with advice that sounded like:

> On day 1 of a new hire's employment, I explain what it will look like if and when I come to fire them. I explain that I will be negotiating their severance and here's how it will look...

Does this ring any bells with anyone? I have this article lodged in my brain as being a great conversation to have with someone on day 1, but have since never been able to find the article again.

When I had my first stint as a manager (way too young to be one IMO) I learned quickly that jokes from manager guy had to be VERY innocuous. Puns are fun, but nothing about work that someone might be sensitive to. Keep the jokes themselves postive-ish. Know the room very well before you tread anywhere else.

It's just way too easy to send the wrong message.

As a manager your words have a great deal of WEIGHT regardless of your intention.

At one of my previous jobs, managers would leak information about potentially not renewing contracts as 'person X has decided to quit'.

It used to be quite awkward to meet person X at a bar and ask them why they were changing their job when this was the first time they heard about it.

Turns out that toxification of workplace is better at getting rid of people than going about it legally.

Joke about being fired yourself, never about canning lower level folks unless you get to that sort of banter relationship with them.

I trend more for the joking line of "hey once you move onward and upward be sure to send me your consulting rate cause we'll still need you"

I think the advice is good but too narrow. The problem is calibration of jokes. I saw managers joke in very bold ways and it was totally fine but also saw managers using humor as passive-agressive initiative of an attempt to downplay someone's work.

As a manager you are never allowed to forget that:

- different cultures have different meanings for the same things, so you will be misinterpreted lots of times

- most people have no sense of humor, so joking with them is a waste of time

- anything you way will eventually be used against you

It is a very sad world.

I love advice like this - it is clear, easy to remember, and simple to apply.

And now we have a URL we can direct our managers to whenever they make these stupid jokes.

Gotta love those domains that can be read two ways.

You can also have new managers watch a season of The Office to learn what not to do ("fake /joke firings" happened a lot on that show!)

The few times I have heard a manager joke about firing someone, my immediate though was "oh, this person is completely unqualified to be in charge of anyone and I should start looking elsewhere".

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