in Career, FS

Drama in Real Life: “You’re Fired!”

We just fired an employee.

Letting a person go is never an easy thing, especially at a small family business like ours. We treat our employees well, and relate to them as real men and women instead of cogs in a machine. But there are times when an employee just isn’t working out, and we’ve got to let him go.

The fellow we just fired was our 21-year-old truck driver. He’s been a little shaky since he started last year, but we attributed that to youth. While on the job, he’s been in an accident, got a ticket for running a red light, and had a total stranger call to complain about his behavior. These are not good things. But we recognized that he had potential, so we tried to foster him along.

Then his attendance — which had never been stellar — began to suffer. His girlfriend broke up with him, so he missed three days to move out of her house. His car constantly had problems. He often left early after he finished deliveries instead of staying to work in the shop. He frequently called in sick.

When he missed the first three days of work this week, we felt we no longer had a choice. This wasn’t working out. We fired him.

Firing an employee is a messy business. No small business likes to do it. There are the headaches — and risks — involved with losing that person, of course, but there’s also the trouble of finding somebody new. The cost of employee turnover is high, both in terms of time and money.

The thing that wrenches at my gut, though, is that this employee just called back in tears. “I’ve lost everything,” he told me. “If I lose this job, I’ll have literally lost everything.”

My heart was breaking for him, and as a person I wanted to say, “Come back, come back,” but I couldn’t do it. We’ve already given him a second chance. And a third. Instead I said, “I know. This sucks. It sucks for us. It really sucks for you. But we don’t have a choice.”

“You don’t understand,” he said. “I’ve lost everything. I’m living with my aunt and uncle. I don’t have a job. I’m going to lose my car on the first if I don’t have the money to pay for it. I’ve lost everything.” He sobbed.

I wanted to tell him that even if we didn’t fire him, he still wouldn’t have money for the car. He’s only been here half a day this pay period, so his paycheck would be close to zero dollars. That’s the same as being fired from a financial perspective. I didn’t say that. What I said was, “What can you do to get money quickly? Do you have anything you can sell? Isn’t there some job you can find where you could start right away?”

He sniffled into the phone.

“I’m serious,” I said. “In a case like this, you’re probably going to have to find something short-term that you feel is beneath you. Flip burgers. Pump gas. Do whatever you can do to make money. We can’t give you this job back, so you’re going to have to do what you can to find some other source of income.”

I continued: “But you should also think long-term. You’re young. You’re only 21. I know you feel like your world is crashing around you, but you’re just starting in life. The best thing you can do right now is decide what your goals are. You like cars, right? And music? Have you thought of doing something with either of these long term?”

“I don’t know,” he whimpered. “I don’t have the education to be a mechanic. I don’t have the schooling. And working in a music store doesn’t pay shit.”

“You’ve got to start somewhere,” I said. “You’ve got to think long-term, but start at the ground floor of whatever it is you want to pursue. If you really love music — and from talking to you I know you do — then start out working for cheap. It’s the best way to achieve your long-term goals. And if you need money right now, you’re going to have to do stuff you don’t really like.”

He sighed deeply. “Man, I know I’ve let you down,” he said. “But I really really really need this job. It’s all I’ve got. Everyone told me I was going to lose it, but I have so much going on in my life right now, you don’t even know. The job is my top priority, but I have so much other shit going on.”

Now it was my turn to sigh. Should I tell him about the time my father died? He started this business and was its guiding force. In the summer of 1995 he died from cancer. Since we’re a family business, everyone here was affected. But you know what? Each of us was here every single day, picking up the pieces. Should I tell him how the guys in the shop all have “so much other shit going on”, and yet they’re here every day, on time, and work a full day? Should I tell him how the foreman went through a divorce that tore him up inside, and still had perfect attendance? I didn’t tell him any of this. Instead I said:

“I know you think this job is your top priority, and I know that’s how it feels to you, but the truth is that the things that are priorities in our lives are the things we actually do. It’s one thing to say something is a priority, but it’s another thing to do it. If this job really were your priority, you would have been here instead of taking three days to move out of your girlfriend’s house. You would have done that after work. You would find another way to get here when your car is in the shop. If this job really were your priority, you would be here.”

“Look,” I said, “I know this is tough. But you have to understand that we have no choice. You’re at rock bottom right now, but you’re only 21. You can recover. You can get back on your feet. But you’ve got to make smart choices.”

We spent fifteen minutes talking. Ultimately the call wasn’t satisfying for either of us. From his perspective, he didn’t get his job back. From my perspective, he didn’t seem to understand that he needs to take responsibility for the things that happen to him. I do not deny that “shit happens”, but it’s how we react to this shit that makes up our character, and determines how successful we’ll be in life.

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58 Comments

  1. JD,

    If this young man ever does change his perspective, he might realize that this was one of the best things that ever happened to him. Sounds like you’re a very reasonable boss to work for.

    squished

  2. Re: your last paragraph. Take some consolation in the fact that what you said may not sink in right away. As someone who is about 20 years the other side of my rock-bottom, I can look back and point to things that my friends and bosses told me as being key points of wisdom that helped me get my life where it is today – a much better place.

  3. I know too many people like this. They say they care about something, but when it comes time to act on their priorities they fail to prove it. Like squished18 was saying, maybe this will be the kick-in-the-pants he needs.

  4. Hello!

    I think you are offering him a good tough love advice that he needs to know and understand before he gets too old to change. He needs to learn the importance of multi-tasking and juggling personal and working life.

    Everyone has something going on at home, but they still must strive to maintain a decent work level.

    He is young and will learn. Losing his car won’t be the end of the world. There are always alternatives.

    Good article

    -Raymond

  5. squished said something interesting. The boy just lost one of the best opportunities in his life. But this happens everyday. People only want easy and fast things.

    No one wants to know how to work hard and become rich, they all just want to win the lotery. And blame the ones who worked hard for their situation.

    Unfortunately, this will never end.

  6. JD,

    This guy was lucky. Plenty of bosses would have hung up the phone and not taken the time. I hope he learns from this. You showed a lot of character with the way that you handled it.

    -Eric

  7. Excellent advice from kind “ex-boss”! This proves that you treat your employees well.

    I hope he will learn from this, and if he will I am sure he will be on track to his success and happiness in very short time.

    -Zaigham

  8. I couldn’t agree more with what you told him about priorities. This is something I keep trying to tell my kids. What is truly important to you is where you will expend energy, everything else is lip service.

  9. Priority is a word that’s used often by a lot of people, but without a lot of sincerity.

    I really believe in “acta non verba”.. or ‘actions not words’.

    His actions clearly said that his job was not a priority.. and maybe you were a bit too lenient in the beginning – which just gave him more leeway to keep pushing and pushing until you reached your breaking point.

    You handled it very well 🙂 Sign of a great boss!

  10. If the job was that important to him, he would have shown up. 90% of keeping a blue-collar job is actually showing up every day. It sounds like you would have kept him, if he would have shown up reliably. Hopefully he will have learned a difficult lesson and be more responsible next time.

  11. JD –

    Not sure of your employment laws in Oregon, and IANAL, but you might want to make sure that posting this couldn’t get you in trouble…

  12. It really is difficult to find decent employee’s. We got to the point to where we just fired nearly our entire shop staff. After lies to osha to get us investigated, fraudulent workers comp claims, and breaking in and robbing us, I could personally care less if they’ve hit rock bottom.

    I always have to laugh when people start talking about how Bush is taking the country down the drain and this and that. When in reality, the only thing that will take this country down the drain is our attitudes and work ethic.

  13. The kid is young. He’s at a good age to make mistakes and learn from them. It sounds as if he has sufficient safety net that he will be ok. You can’t fix everyone that you want to.

  14. You did what you had to do – the next time he runs a red light, there might be a mother pushing a stroller through the intersection, and then guess who gets sued? (hint: not him)

    It is nice to hear that some employers do pay attention to those “How am I driving?” calls, though.

  15. JD, I think you handled this very well, and you gave that young man some very valuable advice – though he may not realize it for a long time. He is at a cross roads, and if he doesn’t stop to evaluate his situation now, he may never do so. It’s great you talked him like a man and offered advice that can help him in life. There are many bosses that would have just told him to shove off.

  16. I’ve been sitting through leadership training and foreman classes all week and this was a big issue in them. Being at work and on time is 90% of almost any job. They explained about heading these problems off and telling troubled employees they have to be there on time or they would lose their job. Basically letting them know they would be firing themselves.

    You did what you could but he’s young and has a lot to learn. I look back even 4 years ago to my behavior at 21. I thought I was dedicated to my job, but came in late almost daily and missed at least one day a week. I was fired from that job, I was told I had done this to myself. They told me I was a better worker than half the guys they had. The difference was they were there everyday. It does no good to be a great employee when you only show up 70% of the time. I learned a hard lesson that year. Though since my attendance has been nearly perfect. Now after a few years of actual dedication and hard work I’m moving into a management position. I have learned how my missing work or being late had large effects on a crew of people that count on a person being there everyday.

    You did exactly the right thing with this young man. Maybe one day in a few years he’ll thank you for it.

  17. JD, you are a class act. This was some tough love being volleyed about. No doubt, you enriched this young man’s life experience with some treasure he is yet to discover. You are “rich” in what matters most.

    – Another GRS Devotee

  18. I enjoy almost everything I read on this site, but this is far and away the best post I’ve come across. Beautiful story, beautiful writing JD.

  19. Wow. Thanks for all the positive feedback. It’s overwhelming. I sat on this story for a long time because I thought it was too personal. But maybe there’s a place for these sorts of stories here. I’ll keep that in mind. (Let me know if I stray too far off course in the future, though.)

    I, too, hope that the employee in question is able to build on this. I’m sure that from his perspective, I’ve been a total jerk. He’s a good guy, with great enthusiasm for life, but he’s very young. I’m sure he’ll turn out fine.

  20. I hope the details in this article were changed substantially. In Canada, the details in this post would land you in legal hot water. Doesn’t the US have HIPAA and employee workplace privacy laws?

  21. Great post J.D. He doesn’t realize it, but this might be the best thing that happened in his life. Hopefully some weeks from now he’ll realize his life is a mess & that he needs to do something about it.

    Most success are preceded by severe failures. And all failures are blessings in disguise when looking back (N. Hill).

  22. I hope this young man reads this someday and realizes the emotion behind the decision you had to make. He needs to see that his actions not only affect himself but that it trickles down to everyone else.

    Sounds like this was what he needed – to hit rock bottom, pick himself up by the boot straps, get his “sh*t” together, and dig himself out of his hole. People do it everyday and become better people in the end.

    You did him a HUGE favor! It may take 10 years to realize it, but he will one day.

  23. Wow. I think you need to teach courses on management to others, starting with my ex-boss.

    I had a similar conversation, but this was with my 18-year-old cousin, who decided to move out and do things on her own after getting on bad terms with her family. I’ve been there to offer her advice, flew her out to see us for a week when she was really depressed, even wrote her resume for her. A few weeks ago, she asked if she could move in with us for awhile, and although I really wanted to help her, I had to say no. There was no way she was going to get it together if she moved in with us. We live in the country, and she doesn’t have a car. She would have to quit school to move, after convincing her dad to help her pay for it.

    I don’t think my reasoning really sank in, but hopefully some of it did. She, too, thinks her life is horrible and “not fair” at the age of 18. I wish I could get her to be thankful for being young and healthy, with her whole life ahead of her.

  24. Do you have any suggestions for what to do as an employee in a crappy economy with high unemployment rates, when the BOSS is the one making serious priority mis-judgments like this? Lying to the customers and employees in MAJOR ways, blatant and intentional food safety code infractions, leaving before the work is done, not being there when he says he will, going out for coffee beans for the coffee shop when we’re completely out and unable to serve customers and coming back 5 hours later after going to see a movie… Did I mention the lying and manipulating employees to get his way?

    I can’t just give him a piece of my mind and walk off the job, I NEED a paycheck! Even minimum wage is better than zero. Of course I’m looking for a job, claiming that I want something more directly in my “field” (as a culinary arts major). But in the meantime, what do you say to try and make him shape up? What do you say when you’ve found another job and are telling him you’re leaving? I want to tell him the truth but I still want to do so professionally–if only to show him how UNprofessional he’s being.

  25. Lots of interesting comments. He honestly is young though, and I’m sure many of us had similar silly moments during our teen and early twenties where we think the world is crashing down on us because a significant other broke up with us or parents aren’t on agreeable terms (e.g., won’t let us stay out late).

    As with others, he’ll most likely be fine. He may not have been happy with how the phone conversation turned out, but the fact that he called you is miles ahead of never calling. If he didn’t show that he at least care or felt bad that he lost the job, then that may have been worse.

    Kevin’s right on target with punctuality and worth ethic. I still have issue with things like this occasionally. You can be working your ass off at three in the morning, but if you’re not where you’re suppose to be when people may need you, then eh.

    Good post.

  26. What’s interesting is that everyone told him he’d be fired yet he did nothing to change his behavior, that’s indication enough that his job wasn’t a priority.

  27. This reminds me of this time I got laid off from my first job out of college. I was 23 with engaged to be married and had just bought a townhouse. I also cried like a baby that day. Nothing could have been more devastating form me then gaining my independence and then have it coming crashing down again. I was fortunate to have parents who could help me out but my priorities quickly changed during those 8 months unemployment. Looking back now I am grateful (though I would have never thought so at the time) because I was miserable there but would have never quit for fear on not being able to do anything else. Job security, independence, and becoming debt free have been my main motivations. But now happily married, four years later I have achieved all of those (with the exception of my mortgage). One thing I truly learned is that if someone is not ready to make up there mind to make a change in their life, then no lesson will be learned until they experience it for themselves.

  28. Losing his car is natural consequences.

    Hopefully he’ll learn enough from his mistakes to look back and thank you one day — or pass it on.

  29. Wow, great story. He needed someone to tell it like it is. Not to say that he’ll wake up and suddenly be a changed man, but hopefully it’ll sink in. Shit does happen, but we’re in control of a lot more than we think.

  30. I’m very impressed by your taking the time to explain a few of life’s simple lessons. If you’re that kind to employees you’re firing, it says a lot about your character. I hope some day (and soon!), the boy realizes exactly what you were saying and acts on it. He’s old enough to make decisions, and he’s young enough to turn things around without causing long-term damage to his life.

  31. You did the right thing. Sometimes life needs to kick someone hard in the ass before he gets the message. Hopefully he does.

    Looking back, did you notice any indications that something like this would happen before you hired him? Will this situation cause you to hire people differently in the future?

  32. I had to fire a twenty-one year old young women this week and I’ve come to realize that “we are not helping someone” if we don’t hold them accountable of their actions. The earlier the better. No matter who the person is behavior that is rewarded is repeated. Basic behavioral theory.

  33. I really feel for you on this one. Your situation sounds almost identical to mine. My dad started a family business and now I run it. We have a manufacturing plant and delivery drivers and I have a personal relationship with all of my employees. I’ve had to fire people before and it’s really really tough. It’s especially tough when you know what the people’s personal lives are like but need to make the tough decision regardless.

  34. He was probably depressed. Sure sounds like it.

    Knowing my state of mind at age 21, I probably would have tried to hang myself.

  35. It’s a little harsh to assume that the trials and tribulations you, and the other guys in the shop, have had in your lives outweigh his. Even though your assumptions are most likely true, I believe that you have failed to take into account that he is a kid and is going through his hardships for the very first time in life. You could’ve handled his situation two ways. First (your way), you could’ve fired him and said things like “You’re at rock bottom now, but you’re only 21. You can recover.” Or, second, you could’ve used you’re experience in life and working through hard times and you could’ve become a role model or a mentor to the kid. The kid is 21. This is an age where he is taking his first steps into the real world and bearing the weight of trying to find his place. There’s a lot of stress and pressure that comes just from trying to find a track in life, let alone getting on the right track, especially without having the appropriate resources at your disposal or someone that deems you worthy of their guidance. He is handling this stress and his other problems very poorly probably because he has been lacking a guide in his life; a role-model or father-figure. Someone to say, “This is life. This is how I did it. You don’t have to do it exactly the same as I did but it worked for me. I’m here for you so you can make all your experiences in life relative.” Instead, he probably has been dealing with people his entire life that say things like, “Should I tell him how the foreman went through a divorce that tore him up inside, and still had perfect attendance?” Yea? Well, if that’s the case, maybe you should also tell him about how the foreman knew his path and purpose and understood that continuing his daily routine would be a source of stress relief as time slowly healed the wounds. How we react to shit happening does not determine how successful we’ll be at all. How much we understand and stay true to ourselves, our path, our goals, our passions and how much we’re prepared for life so that when shit does happen (because it’s definitely going to) we can accept it as shit, deal with it, and bounce back. That is what determines how successful we’ll be in life. And how does one understand and stay true to themselves and prepare for life? Well, you need role-models and mentors to follow until you internalize the path to success and happiness for yourself.

    I know guiding one individual to their path may not bring you the same fulfillment as does teaching thousands daily through your writing, but if guiding people is along your life’s path then I think that handling it the way you did is incongruent.

  36. Well, I am in a minority here, for sure, but I don’t think your giving him advice was the right thing.
    Reality is that no-one takes advice from the one who fired him; it’s not how humans work. And your motives, to him, were justifiably suspect – you obviously were not after his best interests (you just fired him, right?) so why should he consider your advice in his best interests, as opposed to a moralizing desire on your part for your own reasons?
    That said, the same advice to a friend or even a co-worker would have been right on point.

  37. Because of the last two comments, I will just chime in here…

    Note the very first word of this entry, “We”. Well, I am the other part of that, “We”.

    I hired this employee. I disciplined this employee. I forgave this employee when he made mistakes. I had high hopes for this employee. I covered for this employee when he was absent. I physically fired this employeed.

    JD just happened to be the guy he talked to after I had fired him.

    A few weeks prior to the firing, when problems first start arising, I sat down with said employee and discussed things with him. I told him that, while it seemed the flood waters were rising all around him, he needed some kind of lifeline to hold on to — and our company was willing to be that lifeline. But in order for us to be a lifeline, he needed to hold on to the rope — and that meant showing up for work and doing his job.

    I also told him that our lifeline could not pull him out of the water — he needed to dig deep inside himself and find the strength to pull himself out of the water. He was not willing to put forth the effort to do this. He wanted someone else to do it for him. He let go of the lifeline, and we had no choice but to real the lifeline in and start over with somebody new.

    JD didn’t have to talk to him when he called back, but he took the time to try and ease the pain. Something I wasn’t willing to do at that point.

  38. There does come a time when someone is not contributing to the bottom line of a business and is not doing their bit to keep it afloat. Then they are a liability, not an asset, and it’s time for them to go.

    The employer went way beyond in giving him a second chance and time to improve his work behavior. Instead he was late or a no-show.

    He’s 21 years old. He has quite a few productive years ahead of him should he choose to be so (Where is the italics to stress this point?).

    I feel sorry for the guy but he put himself there. It’s up to him to “dig” out as of it were.

  39. I find that many young employees these days have a strong sense of entitlement. One of my employees (23 years old) recently quit, and gave me 2 week’s notice. The next day she came in again and asked whether she could still get her bonus, since she was leaving only 4 months before the end of the year… Can you guess my answer?

    JD, you did good, but I must admit that you are a more patient man than I am. I would not have the patience to go through the conversation you described, where it just seems the other side is simply not listening and keeps repeating the same point over and over. Good going!

  40. Not long ago I was in a similar situation and the employee you had to fire. I lost a job and a home at nearly the same time (neither were my fault, but it’s a long story). I could have let the situation defeat me, but instead I moved my family across the country to a state we had never even visited for the one job offer I had. It has turned out to be the best place we ever lived, and we were able improve our financial situation rather quickly. The saying “God will never give you more than you can handle” often comes to mind. Dire situations only defeat you if you let them.

  41. I agree with Reasonable above. I think you were right to fire the guy but not to give him the advice. You made your statement by firing him. The rest is for him to figure out, or even ultimately to disagree with you on, but not having a job is going to make things tough for a while for him, and that is his real situation right now. To be honest, giving the advice seems really condescending. He is the only one who truly knows his side of this story.

    I had to fire a contractor at my last job and immediately got the call back with the sob story. It was definitely the right thing to fire the contractor, but the repercussions in her life were real. I only explained why we were firing her (missed deadlines, unacceptable quality of work).

  42. Thanks for a very insightful posting, with a real tagline to live by. I now have a reminder up on my monitor where I’ll see it almost every day: “What you really do is who you are; what you say is just moving air. We show our true priorities in life by THINGS WE ACTUALLY DO.”

  43. Obviously what you have described for this young man, and tried to explain to him, is that his current situation and actions are only a symptom of underlying problems he needs to work on. Sometimes these life lessons are very difficult to learn, and unfortunately many don’t learn from them, rather just feel they are being beaten down by “the man.”

    Your advice was sound and heartfelt; hopefully at some point he will take it to heart.

    From a personal experience perspective, if he is truly interested in the music industry, a fun way to gain experience is to work on the road with a tour. There are many “roadie” jobs for guitar techs, stage hands, etc. if you are willing to travel, which in his case would help with the housing dilemma. I have personal experience being on the road with tours in other capacities, but have seen several people get started and make a nice long term job experience out of it.

    There are always opportunities to fit interests if the individual is willing to put for the time and effort to adapt the opportunity. The question of course would be if this would a chance taken advantage of or squandered as with his current employ with you.

  44. It’s nice that you took the time to explain to him that his life is not over, he can recover, and maybe make something of his life. You gave him a good kick in the pants. I’m a little shocked that you posted this on your site though. Shouldn’t that be kept confidential?

  45. A lot of people do not realize what good they have until they loose it. This guy had a good job and blew it to waste. its tough to loose a job but its even more tough to loose a job that was nice to you in everywhere. you did a good thing not taking him back. this will give him a life long lesson and im sure if this guy is smart, he will take this experience into consideration and move to better himself

    nice post

  46. HIPAA relates to privacy of personal healthcare information only. And IANAL, but JD has broken no laws in posting this, although if his employee wanted to bring a case against him for slander he could probably find a lawyer who’d take it. That’s why so many HR departments, when called to give references, will nowadays only give the person’s dates of employment and positions held.

  47. Wow. Sounds like my 24 year old daughter. I gave my daughter a car. It was used and she used it to give her then boyfriend driving lessons. They went on to get married and the car got a flat and instead of fixing it they leased a car. The old car got towed from the parking lot of the apt complex because you can’t have a non working car according to the lease. Well, long story and now they are seperated and gee, she needs a car. I tried to teach both of my kids that keeping a job has a lot to do with showing up every day and on time.

  48. Quick question, what do you think that employee should do if he really do not have a safety net to rely on? I have to ask this question because i am now in the same place as he was. I am also 21, i was just fired from my very first job as my boss said my first 3 months working for him did not give satisfactory result. And I am broke… i don’t have a family to rely on. I don’t have close friends either.