A reader writes:
I’m the GM of a small company. I have 2 employees who handle important parts of the company. I started at the company 4 years after them so have leaned on them to teach me the “ins & outs” of the company. Since they were both very capable I never took the time to learn how to do the things they do (manage inventory, shipping/receiving).
I’ve recently discovered that they are both drinking on the job. It started with an occasional suspicious smell of alcohol after lunch but now has escalated to the point where one or both of them is red-faced and smelling of alcohol nearly everyday (sometimes even in the morning). I think they feel like they can get away with this because they know they’re essential to the company and we wouldn’t be able to do certain things without them (or at least there’d be a lot of mistakes until we did).
Obviously this isn’t a good thing and I need to get rid of them (the owner of the company agrees). I’m working on a “How To” handbook where I’ve told all the employees that I need their help to document every function of the business. I feel like this will help me glean as much information from them before I fire them. I think that’s a good plan. My biggest problem is that I’m having trouble separating my knowledge of their personal lives with this decision. One employee is having big financial problems which are affecting his marriage. The other just recently got divorced and is all excited because she just qualified for a loan for a new house. I figure that I’ll have my How To book done in the next 4-6 weeks, which is probably about the time she’ll be closing on that new house. Great timing to fire someone, eh? That could bankrupt her right out of the gate as she tries to establish a new life on her own for her and her son.
My question is this, I feel like I owe it to these employees to warn them of their impending doom. They have been good loyal employees for a long time, it’s just been in the last 12-18 months that things have really gotten bad. I don’t think it’s salvageable because I’ve had other problems with their attitude toward changes we’re making. It’s time to move on with some fresh blood. But I feel like it will be devastating to both of them if I just tell them one day that “You’re Fired”. Is it dumb for me to tell them “hey, just so you know the owner and I know that you’ve been drinking on the job and he wants you both gone. I’ve been able to stall him a bit but it’s coming soon. I thought you should know so you can look for something else before you buy a new house, etc”? The one risk there is potential sabotage to the company (i.e. intentional shipping mistakes, not ordering inventory replenishments). Or do I just need to be cold-hearted and think of the company first and forget about how this will affect their personal lives?
Why haven’t you spoken with them about their behavior — both the drinking and the resistance toward change? It’s hard for me to imagine discovering that an employee is drinking on the job and not immediately calling them on it, and making it clear that if it ever happens again, they’d be fired on the spot. (And are you letting them continue to drink at work during this waiting period?) I’m also wondering why you haven’t warned them that their resistance to the changes you’re making has the potential to jeopardize their jobs as well; it’s basic fairness to warn someone about their attitude and give them a chance to change it before you give up on them.
I’m somewhat torn here, because it sounds like this situation has been very poorly managed, but on the other hand, drinking on the job is a big enough offense that no one is owed a warning. And if you really think they’d resort to intentional sabotage, that says something pretty un-salvagable about their integrity too. So really, no one here smells like roses.
And I know I’m repeating myself, but I’m really stumped about why you’ve had employees who smell like alcohol on the job and didn’t immediately say something to them. Surely you didn’t think they’d insist on continuing to drink once you called them out on it? And how do you not think it was your role to address this the very first time you had suspicions? So this part makes no sense to me, and it’s making this situation way more complicated than it ideally would be.
Anyway, I think you have two choices now:
1. Talk to them. Tell them the drinking needs to stop immediately, and their attitudes need to improve in X, Y, and Z ways. (Be specific here; just saying “bad attitude” isn’t descriptive enough.) Tell them that their jobs are in jeopardy unless there is immediate, significant, and sustained improvement, and even a single instance of further alcohol use on the job will cause them to be fired. However, this scenario assumes you’d be willing to keep them on if they do make the changes you’re asking for, and I don’t know enough about their performance to know if you should be. (It’s worth considering, though, that there might be an alcoholism problem here, particularly given the early morning drinking. Not that that obligates you to keep them, but it’s worth pointing out.)
2. Fire them and absolve yourself of guilt. Drinking on the job is such a major violation of trust and good sense that you really aren’t responsible for the impact getting fired has on their lives. People who want job security don’t sneak drinks on the job. (Although consider offering them severance because it will make everyone’s lives easier, including yours.)
Given the ethical questions here about allowing them to move forward with financial commitments like buying a house when you know that they’re soon to be fired, I’d give real consideration to #1 … but it’s really, really not good that you didn’t do #1 “12-18 months ago” when things “got really bad,” and I think you’ve got to ask yourself some hard questions about why the situation has been allowed to play out this way.
Regarding your idea about warning them that the owner wants them gone: It’s a compassionate idea from a fellow-humans standpoint, but it isn’t a great idea from a management standpoint. (And yes, it hugely sucks when the two are in conflict.) The problem is that going this route implies that you, personally, don’t have a serious problem with their behavior, which would seriously undermine your own ability to manage, and plus, you say you’re worried about sabotage if you do warn them. (But at a minimum, if you do go this route, don’t blame the owner. You should own your own decisions here and not turn it into a good-cop/bad-cop situation.)
Anyway. Your business presumably deserves employees who will come to work sober and perform at a high level. There are lots of unemployed people out there who would happily keep up that side of the bargain with you. It’s not your fault that these two decided not to, so you either make it clear that they need to meet that bar starting right now, this very instant, or you just go ahead and replace them with people who will.
One last thing: Usually when a situation gets this out of control, it’s not the only management problem in that workplace. So I’d recommend doing some soul-searching about your approach to management in general, and especially on things like asserting authority appropriately, dealing with problems, giving feedback, and even planning for disaster, so that you’re not in a situation again where you’re held hostage to bad behavior because someone is indispensable (and besides, people quit, get sick, die, etc., so you don’t want to be that dependent on someone).
Okay, lecture over. Anyone else have thoughts?