On day three, I received a call from a distraught relative of his who shared that Bob had a drinking problem and that he’d be coming in later that morning.
I had a decision to make, and I needed to make it fast. Do I terminate a ten-year veteran employee for well-documented performance issues, or pursue an alternative solution? The decision led to a lot of soul-searching. In a society where we preach that people are the heart of the business, we sometimes treat them as intangible assets who are supposed to separate their lives and personal problems from work.
My decision was to give Bob a formal corrective action notice for his two failures to report for work. I walked into his office that morning and found him packing up his belongings. I asked him what he was doing, and he replied that he was cleaning out his office since he assumed he’d been fired.
I told Bob that while he wasn’t fired, it was time for us to have an honest conversation. For one, I knew he wasn’t happy that someone my age was his boss. I advised Bob that I had the expectation that he would be here consistently and on time. I also added a qualification that changed our relationship.
I told him that I genuinely cared about his wellbeing and that we could learn a lot from one another—but I needed him to be honest with me. I reiterated my question from three days earlier, asking him if there were any concerns or issues that he wanted to share.
That “defiant swagger” melted away. Instead, sitting before me was a man with a big problem that he was not proud of. Bob admitted he was an alcoholic and that it had negatively impacted his life. That day, Bob and I hit the reset button. With my coaching, Bob took a leave of absence to seek assistance and to regroup. He came back not just a better employee, but an entirely new person.
Bob has since moved on to another job, but we still stay in touch. He often tells people the story about how I wrote him up and changed his life for the better. I’m sharing this story because I believe that HR professionals should not forget our shared humanity and the people who support our businesses. Bob was not a bad human nor did he lack the desire to change. Too often in performance management, we’re all too eager to call out an employee’s shortcomings, but we forget to tell them that we genuinely care—which is the real reason why these conversations take place in the first place.
We also forget to allow employees to bring their whole selves to work. We are not machines. When we’re spread too thin, it’s easy to look for quick solutions to big problems. Had I chosen to let Bob go, no one would have disputed the outcome. However, the organization would have lost a decade of institutional knowledge and a great human being. The lesson for me was to take the path that provided the best outcome, not necessarily the most convenient.
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