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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