Hiring and firing in Scrum

I am exposing my ignorance here but I can’t find anything in Scrum that covers this, even Internet searches reveal very little so I don’t know if I am doing the right thing.

Scrum is about product delivery and so I am aware this is not in the scope of Scrum, but for it to work in practice we need to understand how it interfaces with business decisions. On many issues there is little or no conflict but on people management there seems to be a gulf and people for me are where product delivery starts and ends.

Most discussion seems to make the assumption that the team already exists and is highly motivated. But what if it isn’t, what if someone leaves? what if we need a new team?  What if a member of the team is not motivated or is downright destructive? How is that handled?

Hire a new team member

There are some situations that are easier than others. For example, the team is lacking an expertise or has insufficient people with a particular skill, or we simply need a replacement for someone that has left the team. We discuss it at a retrospective and the team conclusion is that a new team member would be a potential solution. I as Scrum Master can take that proposal to the programme manager (the business) and he will take the decision to hire (or not). The conversation likely includes the PO as it has budgetary implications.

But this is where it gets tricky, if they agree and a vacancy is posted, who sifts the applications? I’d want the team to have a say. There are a number of practical reasons it can’t be the whole team, typically there may be over 25 applicants for each role, that is a time consuming exercise, there is also an element of privacy to consider, so as Scrum Master I take it on myself, or the team chooses a delegation perhaps asking a few of the team for input, but hopefully as Scrum Master I am best placed to understand the requirements of the team as a whole.

Assuming I also filter with telephone screening, that is another time consuming task, is it okay to class it as an impediment that I resolve myself? And if so when I have a shortlist of just a few and want face to face interviews, again it can’t be the whole team so I ask the team to select a representative and typically the interview panel will be a Scrum Master the Product Owner and a team member. But if I am objective the Scrum Master has had significant influence in this decision, so does that undermine the sense of servant leader if I am effectively shaping the hiring decisions?

Also if that is considered an acceptable model, it is actually no different to when I was a department manager which immediately makes me stop and question whether the SM has too much authority in this scenario. That aside it feels right to me, it is pragmatic,the team gets influence but the time consuming aspects are shielded from the team. The only real danger is that the SM has a disproportionate influence on the process.

Build a new team

The second scenario is similar, the programme manager has more work or a new product and needs a new team. Best people to hire a Scrum team are likely a Scrum Master and Product Owner, possibly with input from a team member on an existing Scrum team. But this time there is no team to say what skills are needed, it becomes the judgement of the PO and SM. We are back to implied authority again.

I said at the start that I am on shaky ground, is this the right way? I haven’t seen recruiting, talent acquisition and interviewing as key skills for a Scrum Master or Product Owner, but in the last 18 months I have hired at least 15 people. I have bolstered one team and built up another team from nothing. Which as anyone used to recruitment will tell you is a significant time commitment. But whilst I don’t think of it as a Scrum Master responsibility, I can’t think of anyone else better placed and better suited.

Fire someone

But now I move on to a negative issue, let us consider a scenario where the team has a dysfunctional member, they are disruptive and by their behaviour they are holding the team back and coaching cannot solve it. It can be very difficult to get a team to deal with this in a self-organised way. So much time is spent team building, that pointing fingers at a member can be hard, especially if they are popular despite their behaviour. 

As a Scrum Master this is possibly one of the hardest issues to face, helping a team to see that improvement means hurting one of themselves is challenging to say the least, getting them to do so publicly in front of the party in question is almost impossible.  It can potentially be risky from an employment law point of view if the person feels this is done in a hostile manner. Managers are trained to focus on behaviour, and will normally be in possession of facts to support behaviour based criticism or discipline. Other team member may not be.

I see two ways to handle this the first is that the SM goes outside the team and reports his opinions and observations and has the person removed by a trained manager, chances are this is what the team wants but is unwilling to say so. But this in my opinion is wrong, it places the SM in a position of authority and the team have backed away from autonomy and independence. The right but harder way is to force the team to make the difficult decision and for the team to discuss openly and request changes. To essentially bench the disruptive influence. This may be raised as a retrospective discussion and a good SM should be able to focus the discussion where it needs to go, keeping it behaviour based and factual to avoid making it personal, sometimes retrospectives can be tough and even unpleasant but retrospection must be honest.

I didn’t say it would be easy!

Is this now management?

But in all this what I have proposed is moving the Scrum Master well in to the realm of management. Recruitment, discipline action, are yet another skill set to add to an already diverse role.

What I have described has worked, I’ve been there and done it, but just because it works, it doesn’t make it right and doesn’t mean it will work again.

Where in your opinion is the line drawn between Scrum and the hiring and firing decisions and how can we safeguard the SM from losing credibility by gaining authority?

2 thoughts on “Hiring and firing in Scrum

  1. Good read.
    One thing scrum suggests is the line managers aren’t the scum masters, and poorly performing team members can be discussed (err, passed off) to line managers. Having said that I’ve found it useful to be both scrum master and line manager.

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  2. Thanks for the post.
    From my understanding, Scrum is but a framework, not an answer to all situations that come up in a company.
    Scrum should be used for what it is good at; other things, like HR issues, are not in the scope of the project team. And in some countries (I am working in France), work law isn’t considering Agile practices, and putting the team in charge of something that could end with letting go a team member is not acceptable.

    This being said, if team members complain, the SM can escalate this to the line manager and HR, and let them take care of this. If the guy’s behaviour is beyond the scope of continuous improvement and retrospectives, handling HR issues could be seen as an obstacle to team productivity and be removed by the SM (handed off to HR).

    If the team doesn’t complain because they want to “protect one of them”, responsibility for handling this falls back to the line manager anyway.

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