Once you fire someone, you can’t take it back. Have you thought it through?
If you’re new to a leadership position, a lot of learning moments come from some awkward (if not slightly painful) experiences. One such experience would be the decision to finally let someone go. As employees, the concept of firing someone seems relatively black and white. Did this person not show up to work? Cut them loose. Did they fail to complete their tasks? Goodbye. Did they threaten a teammate? Time to go. While all of these are valid reasons to finally sit someone down for a difficult chat, there are times when a more nuanced approach must be considered.
Such was the case with Marilyn Paul early on in her career. Marilyn has a Ph.D. from Yale and an MBA from Cornell, she takes a unique approach that blends inner work and practical skills training. She’s an expert on time management and well-being. She’s been featured on national media, including NPR, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and CNN. She’s the best-selling author of It’s Hard To Make A Difference When You Can’t Find Your Keys. Her new book is, An Oasis In Time: How A Day Of Rest Can Save Your Life. I recently interviewed Marilyn for the LEADx Podcast, where I asked her to share a time when she felt she failed, and what she learned from that moment.
Long before she was the go-to expert on taking breaks for your health and overall productivity, she worked at a large brewery as a consultant. It was here that Marilyn confronted an issue many young leaders encounter: the reality of complex workplace situations colliding with compassion and mental health outreach. Here’s what she had to say:
“I am an organizational change consultant. I work in organizations all around the country. Early in my career, I was working at a brewery – a big brewery. I was working with a colleague, one of the senior managers there, who came to work drunk. I told him so. You can’t do that. That was a failure. I did it poorly. I didn’t use the right approach to help this man. I was out of there. That was the failure.”
So what would Marilyn have done it differently knowing what she knows today? She explains:
“First of all, I would talk to his colleagues. I would get to know him better. I would establish much more rapport. I was quite young and I didn’t understand alcoholism. I thought, ‘Don’t do it. Don’t come to work drunk.’ That is not helpful for people to hear. Now I understand he was struggling with an addiction. I think I humiliated him. I did it in private, of course, but I would do it totally differently today. I would take much more time, get to know him, talk to his colleagues very judiciously, find out what had been done before, and start very differently.”
The lesson Marilyn learned is an incredibly valuable one. Often employees can act out for reasons that are outside of their control. In fact, a more compassionate and understanding approach can address issues far outside the workplace, or at the very least provide resources to better engage with the perceived problem.
A call for help can present itself in unexpected ways, and as leaders, we have to be prepared to take on these problems in a way that is nuanced and well-informed. Often this means bringing in HR and their wealth of knowledge on various stressors or addictions, and how to properly navigate them.
While it’s not a leader’s job to pry into the personal lives and issues of their direct reports, when unusual behavior infringes on work time and begins to have an adverse effect, approaching it with a calm and understanding process is the only option. If work spills into life all the time, then the reverse is just as true and damaging.
Take the time to field the issue with compassion and heart, and even if the only conclusion is firing someone, you can know that you’ve set them up with the tools and resources necessary to turn things around. Or, as Marilyn puts it:
“I thought it was pretty straight forward. You cannot do this. I was the one who lacked, not him. I went from there on to many other projects and learned a lot. I feel like failure is one of life’s greatest lessons. I did learn a lot.”
Marilyn’s realization is our gain, and this lesson can apply to many sensitive situations that require a leader’s compassion instead of their bottom line. In the end, you are responsible for those who work for you in a multitude of ways, and while you may not be able to solve every problem, you can always find ways to make their lives a little better.