Sunday, March 18, 2007


In my entire life I've fired three people. I dreaded every moment of each incident, and remember each occasion vividly. However warranted I may have been -- and I still think I was in each case -- firing each of these employees was a gut-wrenching experience. And, of course, it was far worse for them than it was for me.

Most people loathe firing someone. Many will go to great lengths to avoid dismissing a person, no matter how clear it is that he or she should be let go. But keeping under-performing employees can wreak havoc on employee morale, especially when others must pick up the slack. And when managers don't fire employees who clearly do wrong, the unintended consequences can be daunting.

In February one of my readers from California faced such consequences head on when he walked into the main office of a not-for-profit agency that he used to run. There, sitting behind the reception desk, was a guy who some time ago had stolen several thousand dollars from that same agency.

My reader had started running the beleaguered agency in 1990. The theft, which involved forging receipts for reimbursement, was discovered shortly after his arrival. There was no question of the employee's guilt, but the agency's board of directors didn't want to risk damaging the agency's reputation by allowing the theft to become public knowledge. It therefore directed my reader to eliminate the thieving employee's position, rather than simply to fire him.

He didn't totally agree with that course of action, my reader says, but he carried it out. No mention of the theft was ever made, and the agency never recouped the stolen money.

My reader retired from his position five years ago. Recently, however, the same agency asked him to do some consulting, and my reader was stunned to find the former employee serving in a volunteer job that often leads to full-time employment. What's more, the job involves receiving donations dropped off at the front desk.

Seventeen years ago, the right thing would have been to fire that employee, given convincing evidence that he had been stealing. Besides firing him, the agency ought to have considered pressing charges and tried to recoup as much of the stolen cash as possible. While safeguarding the agency's reputation is important, not taking forceful action made the agency itself complicit in the misdirection of donated funds, a more serious matter. Given the choice between the perception that donations might not go to a worthy cause and the reality that donations didn't go to a worthy cause, the agency did the wrong thing.

Besides, because at the time the board of directors avoided doing the right thing, the agency again is exposed to this former employee who stole thousands. The not-for-profit is no longer being run by those who know his history, so no alarms went off when he volunteered.

Luckily my reader walked in the door, but now he faces a dilemma: Should he tell the current leadership about this person's past? Or, given that he truly believes that people can grow and change for the better, should he keep silent and give the former employee a second chance?

The right thing for my reader to do is to tell the organization's current leadership what he knows. If the agency keeps the formerly wayward volunteer on board, it should do so with full knowledge of his past and perhaps with limits on how much he deals with donations. If it chooses to dispense with his services, neither the agency nor my reader should feel guilty, since the former employee, in offering himself as a volunteer, clearly didn't tell the whole truth about his past work with the agency.

It's not only this former employee who can learn from his past, however -- my reader also has a lesson to learn. Because he let himself be led into the mistake of not addressing the issue head on 17 years ago, his agency was left vulnerable to subsequent exploitation. Now he has the chance to correct that error. He should seize it, and try not to make the same mistake again in the future.


Anonymous said...

Everyone deserves a second chance. However, when money or children is involved, then we have to consider these components.

Anonymous said...

He has an obligation to the agency to report what he knows about the circumstances and let the current management decide the appropriate response.

Wendy Hagmaier
Fullerton, CA

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