Forgiveness or zero tolerance?

Dec 19, 2016

Sometimes you have to fire an employee, but in plenty of cases, a mistake is a mistake, and an employee with a second chance is loyal.

It’s a position that no boss wants to be in. Your employee has done something wrong. Maybe it has cost the business in a serious way, or maybe it raises concerns about the employee’s judgment and ability to problem solve. Either way, it can be incredibly stressful. Do you use the incident as a teaching moment, both for the employee who made the error, and for the company at large? Or do you lay down the law and fire them?

There is probably a company policy in place that can provide some guidance. However, there is something more important than the employee manual, and that’s professional judgment. Understanding the context of the employee’s action is vitally important. And I am a firm believer in following the spirit of the law rather than the letter of the law.

One of my favorite New Yorker cartoons shows a large room filled with cubicles. Only a few workers populate this expanse, giving the appearance of a ghost town. In the foreground two managers survey the sea of empty squares.

The caption reads: “Maybe zero tolerance is setting the bar too high.”

I have found that most mistakes are just that – mistakes. They can usually be fixed, and employees can use those mistakes as a learning opportunity.

In my half century roaming around this planet, I’ve observed a truism about human beings. They are not perfect. Not one of them. Why then, would we expect them to be perfect in the workplace?

Don’t be confused. We do not excuse inappropriate behavior. People have been fired from LMO for improper conduct. But that conduct has to be put into perspective. The reason for the conduct is as important as the conduct itself. And sincere contrition should always be considered.

Sometimes a transgression is sufficient to warrant discharge. When that happens, the particulars of the firing should be kept private while informing the staff that the employee has left the company. Soon after, a general reminder in an email, perhaps a paragraph from the employee manual, can be instructive. It both notes the event and resets proper expectations for the staff.

Zero tolerance demands you fire a fine person who makes an innocent mistake. The standard and the price of such a policy are simply too high. Worst of all, it eliminates one of the noblest of human qualities, forgiveness. Very often a second chance brings out the best in a person. You gain a better, more loyal employee than the one you had before the mistake.

Dave Marinaccio is an international bestselling author and successful marketing business entrepreneur. He is co-founder and SVP, CCO of Laughlin Marinaccio & Owens in Arlington, Virginia.

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