Leadership Fail

Leadership Fail

A number of years ago, I had to let an employee go.  I’m not really sure at what point we moved away from using the term “firing” and started using “letting them go.”  It almost makes it seem as though we’re scared to call things what they are.  Or, saying that we’re letting someone go makes us feel better about our decision because it sounds like we’re opening the front door and releasing them much like we would a butterfly.

But, this employee had not been performing well in their job for many months and it was probably a decision that was long overdue on my part.  So, I sat them down, listed all of the reasons why they were no longer a good fit for our organization…and then I “let her go.”  I was confident in my decision and we saw an immediate positive impact on employee morale and customer satisfaction.  It was the right thing to do.

However, I have a knack for running into employees that I’ve had to terminate while I’m shopping at the mall, eating dinner at a restaurant, or taking my car through a car wash.  It’s a blessing really…ok, maybe not so much.  It is always awkward, uncomfortable, and tense.  And, it’s happened to me over and over…

But this instance went to a whole new level.

My wife and I walked into a restaurant for dinner and I immediately saw this employee who was having dinner with her kids and her best friend.  She didn’t see me until they were on their way out of the restaurant…which meant they had to walk right by my table.

I would have been fine if they would have just walked out and not acknowledged me at all.   It would have been ok if they would have tried to find another way out of the restaurant by walking on the tops of tables just to avoid making eye contact with me.  I wouldn’t have been heartbroken at all if they would have run out of the restaurant like it was on fire just to not have to say hello to me and my wife.

But, none of those things happened.

Instead, the employee’s 7 or 8 year old son along with her best friend walked by first.  As they got closer and closer to our table, my anxiety began to skyrocket.  I wanted to be cordial, but I also know that she wasn’t the happiest about being fired.  As the little boy got to the side of our table, he made eye contact with me, and then he stopped.  He looked at me and said, “Hey, I know you.”

What happened next is not for the faint of heart.  If you have a weak stomach or are pregnant, you may want to stop reading.  If there are small children reading along with you, have them avert their eyes, please.

After the little boy said, “Hey, I know you” the best friend chimed in and said, “Don’t talk to him, he’s the guy that fired your mommy.”  And then they all walked out of the restaurant.


That really couldn’t have gone any worse.  In that moment, the decision that I had made to “let an employee go” changed from a business decision to one that deeply impacted a mother…a child…a family.  It got personal.

I still wouldn’t change the decision that I made, but this story illustrates how leadership decisions can extend farther than just the moment or the organization or the bottom line.  I hope that when you’re faced with tough decisions that you don’t ever have to face the children of those that have been impacted by those decisions.  Because it doesn’t feel good…at all.

Have you ever had a moment like this?  How would you react if you were faced with a similar interaction?  What leadership lessons do you see in this story?

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