If we had a crystal ball, life would be grand. But, because we don’t, we often find ourselves at the mercy of hindsight. Hindsight being 20/20, what is one setback you faced in your career that ended up being a blessing in disguise?

This post is painful because it requires soul-bearing. Out of respect for parties involved, some details are disguised.

Peter struggled with punctuality and attendance. We’d spoken repeatedly about his ongoing lateness and absences. We’d talked about management’s need for employees to communicate their plans in a way that maximized our ability to adapt. I’d counseled him on our attendance policy and the correct way to notify me he would be late or absent; i.e., I needed him to call and speak to me directly, rather than defaulting to the easier, less direct route of leaving a midnight voice mail or resorting to text. We talked about this a number of times, but nothing improved.

To add insult to injury, when Peter was out, I had to do his job in addition to mine; and when I covered for him, I came across an inordinate amount of mistakes. So, in addition to addressing lateness, I’d spoken to him more than once questioning job fit.

I was genuinely fond of Peter, which made the discussion all the more difficult. Nonetheless, we were at a cross roads and I was  equally prepared to act in either of two opposite directions: if he turned his performance and attendance around, I was delighted for  him to stay with the organization; on the other hand, if he didn’t, my paper trail was perfectly laid for an au revoir.

Right at that critical fork in the road, Peter called out repeatedly for a variety of reasons, some of which stretched the limits of credibility. After four or five days of this, I lost my patience and terminated him over the phone in response to the latest, greatest (and might I add recycled) explanation for why he couldn’t possibly come to work at a really critical time.

In response to this news, he borrowed a co-worker’s key card to send an after-hours, flaming email to ‘all employees’ complaining how horribly I’d treated him, firing him so impersonally for no reason.

The IT person quickly retracted the communication but the damage was done.

What do you do in a situation like this? We chose to acknowledge the elephant in the room. We sent out a response saying that although management’s account naturally didn’t completely line up with Peter’s, we couldn’t comment on the details out of respect for both Peter and every other employee on our roster. We acknowledged Peter for his contributions and we wished him well in his future pursuits.

It was a painful time. I knew people were gossiping and conjecturing, and I felt my credibility plunge through the floor. People didn’t know I had a file half an inch thick documenting all the prior conversations, agreements, e-mails and warnings. And I felt horribly because I had not followed what would have been my own HR counsel, had I taken time to listen to myself:  take a deep breath, compose yourself, respond appropriately and with restraint to the current issue, review the paper-trail, look at the legalities and options, plan a strategy; and, if a termination is warranted, sit down with the employee and act matter-of-factly, not out of anger.

I beat myself up because I suddenly abandoned all that HR stuff and started bushwhacking my own trail. After assiduously running 25 miles of a marathon, I suddenly veered off-course,  abandoned the race, shot myself in the foot, threw it all away.  I felt like I didn’t walk my own walk or run my own race. That may be a lot of mixed metaphors for one short paragraph, but you get the picture.

This was a low, low, low period in my life for many months.

As much as it hurt, I later saw this wrenching setback as a blessing in some ways because of a few key learning points:

  1. HR can come off as self-righteous bureaucrats who pompously dispense cookie-cutter black-and-white solutions in a world that is, in reality, shades-of-gray. It was useful to be on the other side. I’m not so clear-cut anymore. I’m a little more real.
  2. We like to think that we can separate personal from business, but the truth is we develop relationships in the workplace and it can be traumatic to sever those  ties, regardless of the reason. Sometimes HR forgets this. It was instructive and  invaluable  to experience firsthand the emotion that can accompany an imperfect separation.

Since this experience, believe me, I am less likely to judge managers for other-then-textbook responses. I am less likely to presumptuously give advice unless asked.

Although I’m not glad that Peter and I had this painful and semi-public debacle, the situation was a blessing in some ways. Now I’m a kinder, gentler HR person and I have more compassion for the real-life issues of managing people in an imperfect world.

photo by emilyvalenza

About the Author

Krista Francis

Krista Francis, PHR, is nonprofit HR Director and sometimes Acting Executive Director. She lives outside of Washington DC with her soccer-crazy hubby, two active teenagers, a neurotic cat and the best dog in the world, Rocky, aka Party like a Rockstar. In her loads of free time, she tries to keep her scooter running, tests margaritas for quality control purposes and blogs at aliveHR. You can connect with her on Twitter as @kristafrancis.


Krista Francis

Thanks for your comments, Kimberly and Alison. You have no idea how much I beat myself up over this situation. As I read your response, I saw that in the scheme of things, what I did wasn’t so horrendous–certainly not when compared to all the other options available for screwing up, such as embezzling half a million dollars from an employer who trusts you, firing someone to give the job to one’s married lover, or selling out one’s own values under pressure from your boss…

Kimberly Roden

Krista, this is a great post and thanks for sharing an experience from such a difficult time in your career life.

I have to say that I agree with Alison’s comments. I don’t know of any other way you could have handled this situation. While I believe compassion is important, I believe there’s a place for it. My personal guideline is that I’m empathetic except in more serious personal situation (death, illness, etc). Compassion isn’t always the best choice when we have to make business decisions.

You exhausted all measures to assist Peter. Even if you had terminated him in person, he could have walked through the office ranting and raising his voice or worse and you should not feel that you have to defend your decision because you were doing your job. You set clear expectations for him and expected him to meet them. He failed. I also admire the communication to the organization. At the same time, employees need to understand there are always two sides to every story.

I agree with you 100% about not applying cookie cutter solutions to human issues that are never clear; however, unless he was gravely ill, he was abusing the chances you were giving him to improve. I believe that people, in general, want to do the right thing but we have to recognize the “bad apples” when we see them and, more importantly, we have to deal with them. Having worked with employees with punctuality issues in the past, I’ve gone so far as working w/the manager to change the employee’s hours and that didn’t even work. Sometimes there isn’t a win-win answer.

Krista, I would have done the same thing if in your position because if you’re spending time doing his work and correcting his errors, that responsibility was falling on your lap and while your level of frustration increased, it would have eventually taken a toll on your own productivity.

Thanks again for sharing this experience… you’re a great inspiration!

Alison Green / Ask a Manager

Krista, are you so sure that Peter wouldn’t have reacted the same way if you had terminated in him a meeting rather than over the phone?

Someone who reacts the way he did even though he’s been warned repeatedly is someone who isn’t going to react well no matter how you do it. I don’t think you erred terribly here. His reaction — a hostile, irrational reaction when he’d been afforded tons of chances to improve — doesn’t make your course the wrong one!


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