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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squished18
squished18
12 years ago

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

Alias
Alias
12 years ago

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.

Jeff
Jeff
12 years ago

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.

MONEY BLUE BOOK
MONEY BLUE BOOK
12 years ago

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

Pedro Villalobos
Pedro Villalobos
12 years ago

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.

Granata
Granata
12 years ago

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

OfficeGal
OfficeGal
12 years ago

Sounds like he has issues with drugs and/or alcohol. Missing work, erratic behavior, behind on all his bills.

All the signs are there.

Zaigham
Zaigham
12 years ago

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

Ivy
Ivy
12 years ago

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.

Erik
Erik
12 years ago

It sounds like he might have other issues in his personal life that he needs to deal with.

Fabulously Broke
Fabulously Broke
12 years ago

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!

Peter
Peter
12 years ago

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.

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

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…

Adam
Adam
12 years ago

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.

plonkee
plonkee
12 years ago

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.

Alex
Alex
12 years ago

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.

Ana
Ana
12 years ago

I think this was the best post I’ve ever read on this blog.

I heart Getrichslowly.

Patrick
Patrick
12 years ago

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.

Kevin Baker
Kevin Baker
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Jean
Jean
12 years ago

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

Charles
Charles
12 years ago

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.

m.g.
m.g.
12 years ago

So… does this mean you’re hiring?

😉

J.D.
J.D.
12 years ago

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.

Andrea >> Become a Consultant
Andrea >> Become a Consultant
12 years ago

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?

Z
Z
12 years ago

This how-to advice is going to be soooo helpful for me one day soon…

Mehdi
Mehdi
12 years ago

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).

Hannes Calitz
Hannes Calitz
12 years ago

Excellent article. Poor bugger though. But yeah, you have to do what you have to do.

vje
vje
12 years ago

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.

April
April
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Brigitte
Brigitte
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Cap
Cap
12 years ago

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… Read more »

jim
jim
12 years ago

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.

Richard
Richard
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Cheap Like Me
Cheap Like Me
12 years ago

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.

steven
steven
12 years ago

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.

Beth
Beth
12 years ago

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.

Lucas
Lucas
12 years ago

I agree with Ana and Charles — your best post so far.

Matt
Matt
12 years ago

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?

StaceeP
StaceeP
12 years ago

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.

Matt Wolfe
Matt Wolfe
12 years ago

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.

whatever who cares?
whatever who cares?
12 years ago

He was probably depressed. Sure sounds like it.

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

Greg
Greg
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Reasonable
Reasonable
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Jethro
Jethro
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Roy
Roy
12 years ago

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… Read more »

George
George
12 years ago

You did the right thing. I’m glad you held your ground. It’s the best for both of you.

Adventures In Money Making
Adventures In Money Making
12 years ago

He needed to hear that. I hope he’s learnt from it.

good job!

shadox
shadox
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Savvy Frugality
Savvy Frugality
12 years ago

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… Read more »

Liz
Liz
12 years ago

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… Read more »

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