Enabling a Problem Employee's Poor Personal Choices

Letting an employee's bad judgment spill over into the employer's business is causing problems on the shop floor.July 20, 2011

I am not sure what to do about one of our long time employees. He is a dedicated worker and is very knowledgeable about running one of our CNC machines. He can run the beam saw and fix almost anything he gets his hands on. He is pleasant to work with, works hard, stays on task and generally works very efficiently. Sounds great!

But... he always needs to be paid early. He has already been paid for some of his vacation time for next year. In his personal life he is always making poor decisions. For several years he lived with a tramp who took all his money. He was buying a fixer upper house and poured money into it. The tramp left and stuck him with the house, which he walked away from, having put all his money into it. He moved into another house with a roommate. He loaned the roommate his truck and it was totaled. He purchased a new (used) car and after 1 week his roommate totaled it. He kicked out the roommate who had owed over $1,000 in back utility payments. So his lights were shut off. Knowing full well that I may never see it again, I loaned him my large generator.

He had been riding to work with another employee, but that employee is fed up with him. All of our other employees are fed up with him. He had no ride to work the other day and wanted me to pay him more of his vacation pay for next year. Business is slowing down now for the holidays and cash flow is tight, so I just can not do that right now. All of his problems stem from his making bad choices, but it really is not my business what he does outside of work. Nonetheless... I still feel guilty.

Forum Responses
(Business and Management Forum)
From contributor B:
As human beings, we tend to sympathize with others and try to help them out. There is a fine line between a professional and personal relationship. It sounds like you have already put yourself out there in helping this individual out. Paying forward vacation pay may come back to bite if the next incident causes him to lose his job with you, or God forbid incapacitates him from being able to perform. You are torn because he is a great asset to your business in his abilities, but his personal life is going to (already has) create a rift amongst your other employees. If they can't stand him, and find out what you have done for him on a personal level, there will be animosity towards you. Your well-oiled machine will begin to fall apart.

You have done your part. No corporation would put themselves out there like that. Everyone is replaceable. We learn at an early age that all decisions have consequences. Most people come to recognize which decisions will have bad consequences early on in life. Some never do. It's time for him to grow up, or send him on his way before he destroys what you have worked so hard to create.

From contributor M:
I try to make my decisions in dealing with others (and employees) by determining if I am helping them improve their life or enabling them to keep making poor choices. Choosing the latter will ensure they never learn the lessons they should, and they will never become accountable for themselves. In other words, it's always someone else's fault.

Since this guy is your employee, all you need to do is stick to your company rules or only do what you have originally agreed to do as an employer. You are also messing with fire and setting a poor example for your other employees. They will expect the same favors if they ever need them.

Have another talk with the guy and tell him to get his affairs in order or you may have to let him go. He is already a huge distraction to your operation. And one last thing, do this and be free of any guilt. You have already done way more than most people.

From contributor K:
If you can't change the people, then change the people.

From contributor U:
I can only reiterate much of what has already been said. Guilt is a terrible entrapment and often justifies very poor decisions as we attempt to help others. Unfortunately, guilt also blocks any attempt to detach from the problem, or the problem child.

Contributor K's advice is right on the money. If you can't change the employee, get a different one. If you don't, the trap will continue to be set for you and you will continue to get caught.

"If you're going to do what you've always done, you'll always get what you've always gotten."

From contributor J:
When the morale of other employees begins to suffer as a result of this one problem guy, you are risking more than just throwing away money.

From contributor S:
Your work environment is being disrupted. It is your job as the employer to maintain a professional environment at all times.

By your own admission, you have put your company's finances in jeopardy by allowing this employee to receive additional money/tools over and above his agreed upon compensation package. You cannot consider this a loan when you do not expect to be reimbursed.

I am sorry to put this so bluntly, but you are making poor business decisions by allowing this one employee's personal life to adversely affect your entire business. These poor decisions you are making are not motivating your employees in a positive manner.

Start your search for his replacement and terminate his employment. Remember that you do not owe him any severance pay, but if you choose to do so, you can apply the balance he owes on his advances on his pay to his final earning period and severance package to balance the books.

From contributor A:
I think contributor M said it best about sticking to company rules. Which brings up the question, what are your company policies for dealing with this?

Each incident shouldn't be an individual decision based on the worker's merits. I do believe there should be articles in the rules to help the guys with cash advances, borrowing tools, etc. But it needs to be clearly spelled out for all to see with limits. I used to have a crew of 20 guys and on non-paydays, 5 of them would consistently want advances. Also someone else wisely said that you are enabling him to keep making poor choices by bailing him out. Sounds like he's got some good traits, and just needs to be nudged in the right direction.

From contributor C:
I know how tough this can be. I have been in your situation more than once as a manager in the food industry. Unfortunately on a personal level, there isn’t a whole lot you can do for a person who on a regular basis puts his foot in it, but it’s not always a help to get someone out of a jam, especially if you know they will just go and do it again.

Try having a heart to heart with him about your problem and perhaps he will start to see the light. If not, you don’t have a lot of choices here. I have found that letting situations like this drag on too long creates unwarranted expectations on the part of the employee. They will come to expect you to bail them out of the muck and they feel that no matter what they do, you’ll be there for them. This could be his main malfunction… faulty expectations!

Try to work this out, but I wouldn’t be too hopeful for a happy conclusion. This type of situation never seemed to work out, at least for me.

From contributor I:
You are the problem. You are enabling this idiotic behavior. He realizes that someone - someone with money - will bail him out. Money, generators, rides... what else? You're keeping this moronic behavior going by propping him up. Let him sit in the dark and ride a bicycle for a couple of weeks and his priorities will change.

Lay out your workplace rules - workdays, clock in time, pay rate, pay schedule, etc. Then, do not deviate from it! He can work within the parameters like every other working adult, or get a career started somewhere else that may be more down with his situation. He has no reason to change - give him one.

From contributor P:
I would give the guy a chance to make up for whatever damage he has done to the company. It sounds like his coworkers and you consider him to be a liability to the company by being careless to himself and thus careless to the company. I would just tell him that his personal life is adversely affecting the company.

The individual has to realize (you have to help him see this) that he is associating with people who are a liability to him. I have seen this with employees who were former meth addicts; they had to make a decision. Then he has to decide which type of people he wants to associate with.

Then he needs to come up with a plan on how he can contribute to the company in a way that makes up for the damage to the company, and so that he will no longer be a liability to the company (and truthfully himself). If he doesn't want to do this, get rid of him. To me, good employees are gold, and I would do what I could to keep him.

From contributor G:
He has only one choice to make. Either control his life and finances or go on unemployment. I have one guy that is always pressing for early vacation pay and loans. I did pay early vacation one year by two months, then the next year he wanted it six months early. I said no and he is still working here and has not asked again. You are enabling him to be a pain in the butt.

From contributor W:
All of the above advice is good, except about further heart-to-hearts. If the other guys dislike him, the situation is irretrievable. If you are slowing down, lay him off now and never bring him back. You will see an immediate increase in productivity from the others. If he is a key part of your operations, immediately start looking for a replacement, and as soon as you have that in place, get rid of the bad worker. You can't let this go on without seriously damaging your credibility with the others, if that hasn't happened already. You are the boss. Man up and do what has to be done.

From the original questioner:
Of course everyone is saying what I already know. I just hate to admit that I really need to run my business more from my head and just a tiny bit less from my heart. We have a small close-knit group of employees. We have had many ups and downs over the years. I have fired many people over the years. Sometimes with great stress and sometimes with great relief, sometimes without feeling anything... And even sometimes with a little fear. I do realize that I have always been there to pull him up out of the stupid mistakes he makes, but I have just had enough. He has come to expect me to bail him out no matter what he gets himself into. I think it is time to cut the strings and let him sink or swim on his own. Thanks for all the suggestions.

From contributor T:
I bet you could triple this guy's pay tomorrow and he'd be in the same situation in a week. The difference between being compassionate and allowing yourself to be abused is a line you need to draw in your own mind and avoid stepping over. We all know many of our employees live from paycheck to paycheck and don't allow themselves the financial leeway more responsible individuals should. Partly this is because lower-end guys don't make too much to begin with, but also some people will just spend every dime they have as soon as they get it. If someone has an emergency, i.e. death/illness in the family, I have no issue with paying him early to help bridge the gap. But if the same aunt seems to die every week, you need to cut it off - he'll ultimately want a check every day and have a BS reason why he should get it (like my roommate stuffed me with a 1k bill). The saving grace is such people usually can't get credit from anywhere else, so if you discipline yourself, he will be forced to discipline himself. He will be better off for it (and so will you and the rest of your employees).

Since he's a good worker, read him the riot act - no more advance pay, figure out his own transport, and so on. Even odds he gets himself in line.

From contributor U:
Glad to see you are at the point where you realize what needs to be done. A business consultant once told me they seldom brought an original idea to a business owner; they usually just helped them find something they knew all along. You are about to help this man reach a point where he can choose to live a better life, if he will take the right path. If he does not, you are blameless.

From contributor P:
The situation is salvageable (people can change). This is not theory - it is something I have done with employees and it works if he wants to make it work. You have to do the steps. The good qualities you say he possesses are hard to find. I would not get rid of him without giving him a chance to make it right.

From contributor O:
I would have to agree with contributor P, but you need to lay it out for this guy. Explain how his choices impact your business, your employees, and his future. Explain, clearly, that his future is entirely up to him. He makes it or breaks it. Because you flat out do not care anymore.

I had one of these guys at my place. Great door man, just could not avoid letting his personal life encroach on the job. Tickets, utilities turned off, fighting with the wife, getting pulled over with weed in the car, had bad day and got drunk and got pulled over, arrested for fighting his ignorant wife (but she started it), weed belonged to a friend of his son. It was always on somebody else. But he needed my money to get it straightened out.

His goofy wife called me about 9:30 one morning to tell me that he wouldn't be in at 6:00 that morning (ya reckon I haven't figured that out by then?) to make our delivery and install (2 hours away) and that she needed his check for his last two days and a week's advance because he was jailed for a headlight out. I think they write tickets for that, and found out from my police friend he was arrested for fighting with her. The police, knowing I needed him on the job, also said I could bail him out for 500. I told them no thanks, he could sit it out. I told her he could pick up his two day's pay if/when he got out. He was out before lunch, and I gave him his check and fired him. He begged me for one year for his job back. He's been back two years now, with zero problems on or off the job.

From contributor V:
This is your opportunity to replace the guy with someone of equal or better ability, with far improved personal skills. There is no need to support mediocrity, especially when it is affecting you and the other personnel.

While altruism is a fine characteristic, worthy of cultivation, there are many outlets for it both personally and professionally. Do not waste any more time on this individual - you are enabling him further. There is nothing wrong with wanting the very best in your company. You give your best, why not ask the same of everyone?

From contributor G:
I never said to fire the guy. I would tell him there will never be another nickel in loans, no early vacation pay and no loaning generators. Treat him like every other employee and he either gets with the program or he resigns with no unemployment. It's a business, not a halfway house.

From contributor X:
I have always stressed to the help that their number one job is to keep me out of trouble. I tell this often. (My big mouth gets me into problems - promising and the like.) So they know that their problems don't rate very high on the totem pole with me. Business comes first, with the exception of emergency. If you can't keep me out of trouble, you're the problem, along with your problems. And what do we do with problems? We dispose of them. Tough love.

From contributor Z:
Just tell him you can't pay him in advance, period! He can waste his earned money on whatever he wants. That is his problem, not yours.

From contributor E:
You are a very generous man. But his problems are not yours. And you need not to feel guilt while he struggles to get on his own feet. Cut his hours and tell him no advances, no loans.

Your job is to keep that shop running for the health of all, not just him. You are not doing him any favors. When you feel yourself swaying, remember that giving a fish is not as important as teaching to fish. You have tough choices, but that's why you're the boss.

From the original questioner:
Well, I fired this employee and he filed for unemployment. I contested the unemployment because he had been warned many times that he would be fired for missing work. In the meantime I found out that he had also stolen tools and finished product.

Well, guess who showed up today? OSHA. He said there were safety issues with the beam saw and the CNC machines. I am out of town, so our production manager had to handle it. Our production manager said that the only issues the OSHA guy talked about was that we had some material in front of a breaker box. Of course, it was the disgruntled employee who put the stuff there and had been told to move it. There was also an extension cord on our automatic drain for the air compressor that should have been hardwired or plugged into a closer outlet. Hopefully that is all he found.

We do run a safe shop and in 18 years we have only had one accident that required more than a band aid. And that was because the employee was smoking dope before work. Anyway, everything as far as I know can be taken care of in about 15 minutes. Has anything like this happened to anyone else? I was wondering what OSHA does regarding fines. We are just hanging on and a fine would really be tough on us.