Employees Who Make Bad Choices

Employees who make bad choices in their personal lives usually create problems in the workplace. Should you take their issues outside of the business into consideration when hiring or assigning responsibility?

The legal answer of course, is “no.”  Employers are expected to erect a Chinese wall around working hours, and dutifully ignore anything that doesn’t relate directly to job performance. In reality, all owners know that is both untrue and unwise.

We don’t hire a Director of First Impressions who shows up to the interview dressed like a cross-country hitch hiker. If a prospective hire informs us that his wages are being garnished for unpaid child support, we are unlikely to give that as a reason for choosing someone else, but it is.

A classic Dilbert carton features the “Room of Useless Employees.”  In it, men and women are staggering around like zombies reciting their personal distractions. “Buying a house.” “Having a baby.” “Getting married.”

good bad choiceOf course, employees have the right to their lives. We are all distracted by problems involving home, health and family. Some people, however, just seem to make  a lot of bad decisions despite the best support you can render.

A few years ago a city was inundated by a major flood. Most of the citizens evacuated, but some remained, apparently for the free merchandise opportunities. The front page of the newspaper featured a young man wading through chest deep water with a new television set held over his head.

Clearly, he was a practitioner of serial bad choices. He should have left the disaster area when given the opportunity. Since he didn’t, food and safety would be better priorities. That aside, he had no access to electricity, and his abode was likely uninhabitable for a long time to come. Making the television his loot of choice was clearly not very well thought out.

Employees who make bad choices are not necessarily limited to the entry-level, either.

An owner I worked with was seeking a financial manager. A candidate interviewed who had advanced education and experience credentials, but had served time for embezzlement. Since his release several years before, he had supported his family by splitting his time between menial jobs in food service and acting as the controller for a non-profit organization. He presented very well, was clearly knowledgeable, and expressed passionately how he had learned his lesson.

This business owner had a few second chances in his own background, and decided to offer one here. He put the appropriate safeties in place (no access to bank accounts, oversight, split responsibilities for accounts payable and receivable, outside audits), and gave the man a job.

Six months later the financial manager came into the owner’s office “just to let him know” that he was leaving his wife (who had stuck with him through his incarceration) to move in with a subordinate a few decades his junior.  He hoped that the company wouldn’t get sticky about the legal issues of a liaison with someone who reported to him. Of course, he was promptly terminated, apparently to his great surprise.

As the owner told me later, “I should have realized that people who make bad decisions, just make bad decisions.”

Personal issues will arise in any business that employs people. Sometimes unexpected or unavoidable events come in waves sufficient to temporarily derail even the best employee. But if you’ve ever worked with someone whose life was a train wreck as a result of their own bad choices, and was also a great asset to the business, I’d love to see their story in the comments.

Do you know a business owner who would enjoy Awake at 2 o’clock? Please share.

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2 Responses to Employees Who Make Bad Choices

  1. Tracey C says:

    I had a small family business with one employee. She was very loyal to us as a family and came to work nearly every day (which was an important part of the job because we were very small and very dependent on each other). She could manage herself and her work load very well. The customers loved her, she knew the business, understood the risks involved and – probably most importantly – knew when to ask for help and when not to. She always got the job done and did it well. She started on a part-time basis and then moved into full.

    After she became a full-time employee, I began to see the horrific choices she was making in her personal life (because she would come and talk to me about them – often for long periods of time). Her issues began to dominate the office started causing more and more problems for me. One day, our work was interrupted because someone showed up to repossess her car….but how do you fire someone for that? And through it all, she still came to work every day, got her work done and the clients still loved her.

    I tried to create boundaries to manage the drama, but probably didn’t do a great job of it, and it had a fairly negative effect on our relationship. I also had a hard time getting support from the other family members for terminating her because she did such a good job with her work and knew the business so well, and was so loyal to us and the company. In many ways, she would have been very difficult to replace.

    It was a difficult situation that really had no good answers or solutions. In the end, it was resolved because we had to close the business for reasons that were completely beyond our control (and had nothing to do with her).

    Closing the business actually solved a number of problems that had been brewing beneath the surface and threatened to make families dinners rather painful, but I can’t really recommend it as an effective or ongoing problem-solving tool.

    • John F. Dini says:

      Thanks for the story, Tracey. I wish I could say it was the first such I’ve heard. Closing the business is a more radical solution than I’d typically recommend, however! 😉

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