“Someone else’s problem?” A Manager’s Dilemma

*Some details have been changed for anonymity. 


 In the early 1970s, Jeffery Link was working for the National Forests Department. He managed projects involving wood, lumber, flammability characteristics, and many more. One day he got asked to do a special small project with a budget of about $250,000.

As Jeffery’s supervisor was talking to him about this new project, he mentioned that Harold Smith had just been moved and would be working for him. He knew from workplace gossip that Harold would be a problem, but he believed that he could motivate Harold to do at least some work.

Over time, Jeffery realized that “nothing that Harold talked about would ever come to pass; it was just a lot of hot air.” Jeffery went to his supervisor saying “he’s terrible” and “you’ve got to get rid of him,” but his supervisor said that this was Harold’s last stop so he would just have to put up with him.

In the meantime, Harold was “demoralizing all of the staff,” which consisted of between 8 and 10 people. They all complained about him because “not only didn’t he do his own work but he interfered with everybody else.”

Jeffery went to his supervisor saying that this all had to stop, and his supervisor asked what he wanted to do about it.

 The only reason Harold still had a job was because it was almost impossible to fire an employee under Civil Service rules and regulations. Every time a supervisor hit a brick wall with Harold, management would promote him to “make him someone else’s problem.”

Jeffery had an idea. He said, “I want to do a reduction in force.” A reduction in force is used in the government and in other organizations when a project is too low on funds to afford to pay everyone’s salaries. Management would review all personnel and identify people who they could most easily dispose of.  When informed of that decision most employees would grudgingly accept their situation. For them, employment elsewhere or retirement was the only option. 

When Jeffery told Harold about the reduction in force, the reaction was not what he expected. “This fellow was well off, had enough money for retirement already,” Jeffrey remembers, “his wife worked, he was in his 60s and he had no mortgage.” Harold decided he would fight the reduction in force in court. 

Jeffery’s supervisors were not happy with him.  They were “downright miserable” because they had never seen anyone fight a reduction in force before. Harold’s case would go to a federal court with a federal judge instead of a civil court because everyone involved worked for the government. 

On the day of the hearing Jeffery’s supervisor was there, “and his supervisor’s supervisor, and his supervisor’s supervisor’s supervisor were there, and they were all very upset and nervous” They were upset with Jeffery for getting them in that situation, because they were so used to people just accepting the reduction in force.

Jeffery knew where all the money went, and how it was divided, so he was pretty confident in his ability to prove the reduction in force had to go through. Harold was a fairly smart guy, but he made one stupid mistake. He represented himself instead of getting a lawyer. He thought he was smart enough to handle his case on his own, but he couldn’t. But Harold’s biggest problem was that “Jeffery was smarter. He had an answer for every question thrown at [him] from Harold and the judge.”

To Harold’s questions about the budget, Jeffery threw out facts and data about how many people were on the project, what their grades and salaries were, what the overhead was.  The way the numbers came out of his mouth convinced everyone (even Harold) that there wasn’t enough money to go around. 

The final verdict was decided by the judge. The reduction in force would go through and Harold would be retired. After that, Jeffery remembers, “I would get on the elevator or walk the halls at work and people would whisper about me saying ‘he’s the guy that got Harold fired’.  That went on for many, many years.

A few years later, Jeffery left the Department through a reduction in force and he was “the happiest man in the world.”

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