From the Vault: You Could Fire The Person, But Should You?

From the Vault: You Could Fire The Person, But Should You?

This story occurred when I was General Manager of a luxury hotel.

It was Christmas season. Our hotel was elegantly decorated within an inch of its life. We had roaring fireplaces filling the atmosphere with warmth and that wonderful aroma you can only get from burning real wood. We had live Christmas music. Every function room was hosting a holiday party. Guests were dressed to the nines – tuxedos, evening gowns, minks and shminks. If you’re an hotelier, evenings like this are quite memorable.

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One party, however, experienced a serious misfortune. Five mink coats were stolen from our coat check closet. Two of these coats were irreplaceable family heirlooms. Our investigation revealed that James, one of our banquet captains, pulled the coat check person from her post to help pour coffee for about 15 minutes. During that brief window of time, the coats were stolen. The thieves probably strolled right out the front door with them. On this evening no observer would have given it a second thought.

James’ poor judgment cost our hotel many thousands of dollars and damaged our brand. I could have fired him, and I was getting pressure from the corporate office to do just that. The HR people were concerned about consistency and precedent. PR and Branding people felt that firing him rapidly would send a positive message about the brand. Others wanted him fired just because they were pissed off.

I didn’t fire him. James was one of the most talented banquet captains I ever had the pleasure to work with. Leadership, people skills, professional knowledge, bearing – he had it all. He had worked for our hotel for many years. Over those years numerous guests told us they booked business with us because they knew James would take care of them with excellence. Yes, this was egregious, but James had never done anything like this before.

I had a rather stern discussion with James, who felt terrible and fully expected to be fired. I put a written warning in his file, and explained why I was not inclined to fire him when I balanced his overall value to the hotel against this one screw up. Tears surfaced. By the end of the conversation, I had re-hired him emotionally.

Decisions have consequences. Not firing him did in fact create some risks associated with consistency of discipline. In addition, many people felt that he needed to be held accountable. They disagreed quite vigorously with my decision, as many readers will, I’m sure. On the other hand, I retained a very valuable employee, I deepened his loyalty, and I demonstrated to all employees how they would be treated in a similar situation. They got a message about my loyalty. They knew I had their back.

I have several of these stories. One of them is about when my former boss. Phil Lombardi, didn’t accept my resignation for a screw up that wasted a lot of money, and caused him serious loss of face. That’s probably why I take this point of view. I learned and grew from that experience.

Sometimes, firing someone for egregiously poor judgment is the right thing to do. But I think there are too many times when a leader fires someone because it’s the easy way out. The extreme version of this is called “scapegoating”.

Do any of us think we go through life without occasionally exercising poor judgment, and sometimes very poor judgment? What I’m saying here is that some of these occasions present opportunities for learning and growth. I encourage you, as a leader, to look for them.

Thanks for reading. As always I’m interested in your thoughts.

Larry Sternberg
lsternberg@talentplus.com

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