You lay down in bed to read a bit before going to sleep when the phone rings. You freeze momentarily as your stomach tightens. A quick glance at the clock reminds you it’s after eleven. A ringing phone at this hour can only mean a prank call or something bad.
It’s something bad.
A reporter on the other end tells you that your chief financial officer has just been arrested for embezzling nearly $180,000 from your company over the past five years and would you like to make a comment? Your mind goes numb and you realize you won’t be sleeping much tonight. What do you do with this employee who stole from you?
Or you’re the principal of a large middle school which is presently conducting the annual two-week state-mandated assessment tests. The scores from your school this year determine how much funding you get from the state next year. Suddenly, five eighth-grade girls—all straight-A students, all involved in various activities, all from good families, all with reputations of honesty and integrity—appear in your office, saying that their teacher—who has been teaching at your school since it opened 20 years ago—just cheated on the assessment test by giving them several answers beforehand.
You put the teacher on paid leave and the school district begins an investigation. They discover that what the girls said is true. The teacher cheated. There are a few guidelines in place within the district that dictates how to respond in a situation like this, but personally, you can’t help but wonder what to do with this employee who violated clear ethical standards.
Or you’re the executive director of a non-profit ministry that provides after-school programs for at-risk high schoolers. You receive an email from an angry parent about one of your staff members who coaches the basketball team. According to the parent, her son started getting unruly in a tutoring session and the teacher asked the coach to intervene since the student was on his team. He took him out in the hall, slapped his stomach, then took him back to the tutoring room, made him raise his shirt to show the red handprint to the tutor, then slapped him on the back of the head. While the student wasn’t physically hurt, the parent said, he was humiliated and embarrassed. Ultimately, she wants to know what you’re going to do about this.
Finally, you’re the Majority Leader of the U.S. Senate. You’ve learned that one of the senators has resigned from his post because of lewd photos and texts he sent to six women whom he had inappropriate, but non-physical, relationships with. His pregnant wife is standing by him as he seeks treatment at an undisclosed facility. What do you do with him?
These four scenarios—either in the public record or based on actual events—are all too common today. Actually, situations like these have always been common, but with today’s instant access to information anytime and anywhere, it seems to happen more often. A public figure, a leader in the community, an executive in a business, or someone with a position of respected authority makes a bad decision, a string of bad decisions, has a moral lapse, engages in inappropriate behavior, or breaks the law. What happens then? If laws have been broken, then other forces—police, prosecutors, lawyers—come into play and take control of the situation. This article will not deal with scenarios in which any laws have been broken or minors have been violated. While both are a reality, it also adds many extra layers of complexity that will only mire the conversation.
However, if no laws have been broken and minors are not involved, what happens next? What is an appropriate response? From a purely financial perspective, research has shown that long-term drug and alcohol abuse on-the-job can cost industries $100 billion annually, including 500 million lost work days each year.1 Unbelievably, the cost of firing and hiring a new employee might be even higher. For instance, one employee who makes $60,000 could cost a company $150,000 to replace.2 In addition, how much money and time have been invested into that employee? Could keeping errant employees around, however, cost businesses, industries, churches, and government institutions even more? Of course. This article does not advocate keeping employees who should no longer be with an organization. Instead this article asks the question: What are my alternatives in dealing with employees who have exhibited errant judgment in their behavior?
This article asks more questions than offers solutions. It seeks to start a conversation in hope that with more time and research, viable options for building long-term, substantial, and transformative processes for dealing with the very human behavior of leaders and followers will be found. In starting a conversation, this article will explore current research on the topic of fallen employees, describe the two most common approaches to dealing with employees who fall, and suggest a third alternative along with its obvious shortcomings.
At the moment, there are relatively few resources focused on the topic of restoring an employee who has made choices inappropriate for their respective position. Instead, most research and study is focused on finding ways to build employment relationships that foster prudence, servant leadership, humility, and when necessary, workplace discipline or termination.3 Another approach is to study the merits and disadvantages of employee termination and to propose new, more humane ways of eliminating the employer-employee relationship.4 Whatever technique is used to terminate an employee, they are still being terminated, which does not answer our question.
In addition, other approaches study why an employee will make unethical decisions in the first place.5 Wolfgang attempts to find incentives an employer can create to curb this tendency by calling for termination restrictions that will reduce both employee turnover and rehiring costs, as well as more effectively training employees who will be less likely to be fired.6 Still more research explores how an employee’s response may or may not curb employer retaliation for their inappropriate behavior.7 Some analyses are simply case studies that explore a particular situation (should at-work bloggers be fired?)8 or even fictional creations that create moral dilemmas so students and executives can try out different methods of handling the situation before actually confronted with it.9
There are also ample studies given to unlawful termination and reinstatement,10 whether reinstatement is appropriate for at-will employees,11 how the court system has been involved in a case of termination and reinstatement,12 and how reinstatement affects job performance.13 None, however, attempt to deal with restoration and rehabilitation as an option against termination.
The non-profit world, mostly churches, is a little better, but not much. While most churches deal with an employee situation on a case-by-case basis with few guidelines for dealing with major infractions, at least some denominations, such as the Evangelical Free Church of America (EFCA), the United Methodist Church, and the MidAmerica Baptist Conference, have guidelines for navigating moral failure. While none of these approaches guarantee re-employment of the employee, because of their Christian worldview, they are focused on the restoration of the person’s relationships with family, self, and God.
The one noted marketplace exception is a case study on The Men’s Wearhouse which has a policy of giving second, third, and fourth chances to errant employees.14 Their overall philosophy, in a retail landscape where employees are typically low-paid, low-educated, and highly transient is “to help people understand others, listen better, and develop excitement about helping themselves and their teammates reach their potential as persons. Realizing their potential is not just about selling men’s clothing, but also about becoming a better spouse, a better parent, and personally more self-fulfilled.”15 This foundational belief often keeps the company from firing a person for theft, a common tipping point for termination in the retail world. It will even go further by loaning an employee money—at no interest—when going through financial difficulties. The Men’s Wearhouse views it as their obligation to develop each employee to be the absolute best they can be. Charles Bresler, executive vice president for human development and store operations, says it this way: “(W)hat the typical retailer sees are a bunch of people who are stuck there and if they could get a better job, they would … when you treat them well and give them a second and sometimes a third chance, even when they’ve ripped off a pair of socks, even when they’ve taken a deposit and put it in their pocket and not returned it for several days … you try to re-educate the person … We’ve looked at how to help ourselves and other people get better than most of the world thought we could ever be.16 This approach is highly unusual in the business world. Instead, most organizations either outright terminate the employee for their moral breach or outsource their recovery and care to a third party.
Keep the Status Quo—Termination
The most common way that organizations deal with inappropriate behavior, bad decisions, or moral failure is through terminating the employee. This can take the form of the organization ending their relationship with the employee or, in order to protect the employee’s dignity, reputation, and self-respect, ask for their resignation. This gives the employee freedom to tell others—and a prospective new employer—that they resigned by their own choice instead of being fired.
In cases where the law has been broken or minors are endangered, termination is fully expected. In most other situations, there could be viable options for dealing with the troubled employee. The psychology behind an immediate termination without exploring other options is complicated. What was the employee’s position at the organization? How extensive was his failure? Does the punishment fit the crime? Was this an isolated situation or a pattern? Who was affected most by the behavior? Is the culture of the organization quick to forgive? Did the behavior cause the employee to cross a line that can never be repaired? Has trust been broken for good? Does the organization encourage risky behavior? Or does the culture reflect a policy of “one strike and you’re out?”
Unfortunately, in most organizations, terminating an employee is the default option embraced without pausing long enough to evaluate if it is the best way to resolve the situation. Yes, the point of businesses is to make a profit and the purpose of non-profits is to accomplish a mission. Neither is necessarily obligated to long-term relationships with a troubled employee. Some upper management admit that they do not believe that they are in the “hand-holding business.”17 If an employee is not able to produce results and actually gets in the way of profits or mission, then they must go. It is a clear-cut, black-and-white issue with little room for viable options. This way, the organization does not have to get involved in the often confusing messiness of a person’s life that is composed of strengths and weaknesses, plusses and minuses, as well as the good and the bad. They are able to maintain the status quo, dismiss the employee, and return to life as normal.
Out of Sight, Out of Mind—Outsourcing Assistance
A second option that organizations use to deal with a troubled employee is to outsource assistance. This can look different based on the situation or the organization, but usually involves the employee participating in an external program to help work through her issues, either during work hours or on their own time. This is especially applicable for situations where there is a long-term pattern of alcohol abuse that affects employee job performance. These employee assistance programs (EAPs) come from industrial alcoholism programs.18 Therefore, the literature and practice continue to focus on that issue.19
While EAPs may be adequate for dealing with an employee whose personal problems—such as alcohol or drugs, troubles in his marriage or family, financial hardships, or dealing with emotional/psychological issues—are affecting his job performance, they are less adequate in dealing with larger issues that this paper focuses on. Diana Chapman Walsh’s overview20 of establishing an EAP is thorough and complete but inadequate when dealing with circumstances that do not affect job performance but is a clear violation of values and practices endorsed by the organization. When these situations erupt, organizations tend to fall back on the only option they feel is available to them: termination. On rare occasions, organizations sometimes force the troubled employee to take either paid or unpaid leave. This is usually designed to give the organization time to do its own investigation into the affair, consult with lawyers, and determine a course of action. Rarely is the purpose to give the employee time to get help. And even if that is the purpose, the message is still very clear: The supervisor or employer “remains free from entanglement in the troubled employee’s personal life.”21 The end result of outsourcing assistance is to help the troubled employee begin performing in their job duties as expected. However, if they are not able to do this, they are often terminated.
Non-profits, especially churches, are only a bit more prepared. As previously mentioned, a few denominations have generic structures in place to help troubled employees. Given the nature of the infraction, a church may require an employee to seek outside counseling or help at a treatment facility. The EFCA has a “Recovery Church Ministry” within their denomination to assist pastors who leave the pastorate for any reason. The pastor and his family are removed from their current church—again, either through termination or resignation—and go to a new church which assigns a team of people to assist in daily living, adjusting to a new life, and relational/spiritual healing. The goal is to bring personal growth and “renewed opportunity to serve Christ.”22 Again, the underlying message is clear: in order to recover from past mistakes, you must go outside to find healing.
There are certainly legitimate circumstances for the adoption of this approach. It may be in the best interests of all parties to have a clean break. A new environment can actually help facilitate healing. But this approach can also too quickly and too easily be embraced because letting someone else, a church, or another organization deal with the problem is far easier than having to deal with it personally. Are we able to assist this person with their issues internally? If we aren’t, what needs to change within our organization? Would these changes be consistent with our culture or the kind of organization we seek to become? Would time apart actually help the situation? Would it make things easier or more difficult for when this person returns? Would this person leaving communicate that we are helping him or just burying the problem? How do we continue to support him while he is gone? To what extent, and how, do we communicate with him?
A New Approach
Instead of termination and instead of outsourcing assistance, might there be another option? Rather than reacting so quickly to severing a relationship with the employee or passing them off for someone else to take care of, can’t a regular, everyday, normal business or non-profit stay involved enough to contribute to an employee’s recovery? Except for extreme cases when laws have been broken or there is an endangerment to minors, the answer is yes. Every organization, no matter if it is a for-profit or non-profit, needs to establish an employee restoration plan that applies not only to an employee’s poor job performance but to violations of the values and practices endorsed by the organization. This will undoubtedly look different depending on the organization, its industry, as well as the violation, but general guidelines and questions can help the organization determine what will work for them. This will allow the organization to have a long-term relationship with the employee, save thousands of dollars that would normally go to termination, hiring, and training, and help establish a culture of family, forgiveness, and commitment.
When an employee is struggling or has a moral/ethical failure, what if the organization takes a long-term view, keeping larger issues in mind? Rather than seeing the employee as only an asset or producer, what if they are seen as the organization’s family member? What if termination is seen as an option only in worst-case scenarios and recovery is seen as the normal standard?
Instead of pressing charges when an employee steals from the organization, what if they are given another chance? This would require them to reevaluate their priorities and determine if they want to participate in the organization’s recovery plan. If so, then additional training, counseling, or classes can be assigned to help uncover reasons for the theft. The person is then assigned a “coach” or a group of peers that make up her “care team” who meet regularly together to support her progress. While she pays back her debt to the organization, she might be on probation and reassigned to a position with less responsibility, visibility, and compensation. Enough time is required to rebuild trust. Regular evaluation and feedback from her coach/care team will serve as the basis for recommending when, and if, she is ready for more leadership and responsibility.
When a teacher is caught cheating in administering a standardized test, instead of termination or reassignment to another school, he can be required to meet one-on-one with a counselor to explore why he felt cheating was an acceptable option. Further training will be necessary, as well as being assigned to a coach/care team. He might even be a para-instructor and assist a teacher in the classroom for a period of time so he can focus on his restoration without the responsibility of a classroom.
Someone is caught in a sexually-compromising situation that is inconsistent with the organization’s vision and values. They can be placed on temporary paid leave or given a position with no leadership or authority. The purpose here is not punitive but to give them a respite so that their personal issues can be faced. A lower level position within the organization also helps give them dignity—they have a job and a paycheck—without the pressure of a high-level position so that they can focus on repairing their life. An outside counselor or treatment facility will most likely be necessary, especially if the organization is not large enough to accomplish this internally. But a coach or care team is again key in maintaining consistent communication with the organization and relationships with co-workers.
An organization that seeks to begin an employee restoration plan will have the following assumptions as part of their culture:
- There is hope for every employee to become more than who they currently are.
- The most valuable asset of the organization is its people.
- The relationships in the organization strive to be long-term and permanent; therefore, a troubled employee will not be easily dismissed.
- Disciplinary measures may be suspended or enacted—whichever is best for the employee to be fully restored within the organization.
The foundation of an employee restoration plan is an organizational belief that every person has dignity, value, and can change. Whether that happens or not is ultimately up to the employee. Are they humble enough to stay in an organization that has potentially seen them at their worst, but to admit their failures and grow beyond them? And will the organization move beyond a mere profit- or mission-center and become a family?
This article raises more questions than it provides answers. It is designed to start the conversation on finding an alternative to an immediate termination when an employee is troubled or exhibits inappropriate behavior. Rather than having a “get rid of him” attitude, this paper has raised the possibility that organizations have invested too much time and money into employees to so easily dismiss them, either through termination or outsourcing their healing. In addition, it provides for the possibility that an organization can be seen as the primary place where an employee is restored to health and good standing with his peers. In order to accomplish this, each organization needs to create their own employee restoration plan which provides general guidelines for how they will not only give the employee a second chance but work to restore them to health and good standing among their peers.
There are obvious questions and shortcomings to this approach. Does this cause the organization to stray from its core purpose? If the employee is caught in wrongdoing and denies the allegations, how does that change the restoration plan? Would an employee want to stay with a group of people who has seen them at their worst? Would upper management and other employees be able to forgive and see beyond this particular episode? How many chances does an employee get? While these are difficult questions to answer, they can help remind every organization that its primary asset is its people. When this value is fully leveraged and embraced, employees will experience their value and become just as loyal to the organization as the organization is loyal to them.
- (n.a.) About Alcohol Abuse. Retrieved from http://www.about-alcohol-abuse.com/Alcohol_Abuse_Statistics.html
- Young, C. (2005) The Real Costs of Employee Turnover. Retrieved from http://www.jdapsi.com/Client/articles/coh.
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