Should You Fire A Man with Nine Children?

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Allowing employees to recover from mistakes is not an easy task if the mistakes involve a challenge to your authority.

I was a new Director, working for a Vice President who worked for the President. Their prior Director was killed in a car accident. The position was open for a year before I filled it. The problem was that the team hadn’t had a Leader for so long that many of them had forgotten their objectives were. A team without leadership reverts to individuals doing the best they can for themselves. They deteriorate into chaos.

In particular, the facilities manager and his right-hand man had been doing whatever they wanted. They bent and broke the rules, but because the Director had died unexpectedly, the facilities manager was the next person who knew what was going on. The company had not taken him to task for his behavior.

When I came on board, I met with my entire team to discuss the fact I was new and would depend on them for information. We had lost a year. If I went in a direction that the team disagreed with, they were welcome to come to my office and discuss it with me or they could all a tea meeting and present their ideas to us all. Their choice. We would listen and consider their input, but the final decision was mine. It was an excellent way to start our relationship since they had been leaderless for so long.

The facilities manager was running a project I believed inappropriate. When I calculated the numbers, the return on investment (ROI) and the payback did not match the company guidelines. I asked him to bring the information regarding the project for us to discuss. He and his right-hand man came to my office. We reviewed the project data and objectives for ninety minutes. At the end of the discussion, I suggested we end the project.

He told me, “Fine,” and said he would shut it down.

The next time I walked around the plant, I found the project still running.

I asked him to shut it down a second time. Once again, he sat in my office and told me he would. His right-hand man was with him and agreed that they would address it.

When I went out to the factory two days later, the project was still in process. When I spoke with the team on the project, the team did not understand the project was shutting down. I did not inform them of the direction.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. When we had this conversation a third time, I asked the right-hand man to leave the room.

I spoke directly to the facility manager.

“Listen,” I said, “I will not ask you again. You will turn that project off, or you won’t be in charge of it anymore.”

He responded, “Who will run it?”

I smiled. “I will. You can’t do my job, but I can do yours.”

He took off his badge and arrogantly whipped it across my desk. It slid to a stop in front of me. “If you will take over my project, you don’t need me. I’m just going to walk out the door.”

It was a cool and decisive move. I suspected that he’d been pulling that stunt ever since the former Director left, forcing management to back down and let him do what he wanted. Unfortunately for him, I wasn’t that management.

I sat straighter in my chair, picked up his badge, and put it in my pocket. “All right then, I understand. Pick your stuff up at your office, go to HR to let them know you have quit, and I’ll see you later.”

His eyes got big. “Wait, a minute; what are you saying?”

“You threw your badge on my desk. Paraphrasing your statement, you said, ‘If I can’t have it my way, I don’t want to be here.’ Well, you can’t have your way. So, I’ll see you later.”

This was not the reaction he was expecting. “Well, maybe — ”

I cut it. “There’s no ‘well maybe’ in this. You chucked your badge at me. Don’t you have nine children? It looks like you’ll be telling your wife, ‘Hey honey, me and you and these nine kids aren’t going be eating or living indoors much longer because I decided that I wanted to act like an arrogant ass with my boss. Guess what? My boss followed my lead and behaved like an arrogant ass with me.’” He sat there in silence, staring at me. “Go home,” I said.

He left, but he did not go to HR on his way out of the building. He took only his coat with him. I notified security he was no longer allowed in the building. I did not tell them why. When he came to work the next morning, he couldn’t enter. He kept working from the lobby, and anyone who wanted to see him had to meet him there. He found this humiliating since I had notified no one I had fired him. I needed time to make my final decision.

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His wife called the next day and asked me, nicely, to return his badge. She would guarantee that he would never whip it across my desk at me again. He would be my staunchest supporter. I told her that if he ever tossed his badge at me again, I would fire him, for real. She reassured me he would not.

During our “welcome back to work” conversation, I notified him that I would not tolerate bad behavior.

I told him not to let his alligator mouth write checks his hummingbird ass could not cash. I let him return to work.

Work is not a hand of poker. It doesn’t matter if you have a full house and your boss has a random collection of unmatched cards. The boss wins.

Don’t pretend like you will do something that everyone knows you can’t do. He had nine children. He could not bluff. When you do, someone will pick up that bluff and beat you with it like it’s a two-by-four.

If you have intentions to leave the company or to make sure a project goes your way, don’t back your boss into a corner. When he slid that badge across the desk he gave me no option than to pick it up and put it in my pocket. I wanted to fire him right then and there. I had him on insubordination for his actions on the project and for throwing his badge at me, however, firing him was not the right thing to do.

He was a long term loyal twenty-eight-year employee. He had been the de facto leader of the team for a year, picking up the pieces when his boss was killed. Management allowed him and the team to misbehave. I suspected he thought he would be promoted into the position. When he was not, and I showed up, this caused him to behave irrationally. I could have fired him, but that would not have been good for our team or him. I knew his situation with nine children under twelve. I took his personal situation into account when I made my final decision. I used my discretion as the boss to reach a solution that was better for everyone.

Knowing when to exercise your discretion to take away someone’s livelihood is a major part of being a Leader.

Adapted from: “Bullets And Bosses Don’t Have Friends” Being Smart and Working Hard is Not Enough to Succeed at Work by Toni Crowe

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