Tough Love In the Workplace: Part 2


…continued from last week’s part 1

Tough Love Saves Lives

The first story I want to tell you on the subject of tough love is about an alcoholic employee I dismissed for attendance-related reasons.

This employee was a shift worker and had a habit of not turning up for work every fourth Wednesday (his second night shift). His wages from the previous fortnight would be in his bank account on Wednesday morning. We had reasons to believe he would go straight to a local hotel after leaving work on the Wednesday morning and subsequently fail to turn up for work that night.

His supervisor recognised the pattern of behaviour, and we began to apply the standard of escalating counselling and disciplinary steps. At each stage in the process, the employee was informed what the next stages would be if he didn’t meet the attendance requirements. The employee denied that alcohol was the problem, refused all offers of help from the company’s counselling/employee welfare program and kept promising to turn up for work as required. However, the pattern of behaviour continued until we reached the stage where I terminated his employment.

The day after I dismissed him, a union official came to see me. The first words he said when he walked into my office were, “You’re a murderer.”

His logic was that the employee only had two things he enjoyed in life – alcohol and work – and if I took away the work component the employee would drink himself to death in a fairly short time.

I informed the union official that I was practising tough love and that if the employee placed himself into rehab, got himself straight, proved to me that he was off the alcohol, and agreed to a period of random testing, I might give him his job back. He needed to make a choice between work and alcohol. He couldn’t have both.

The employee did as requested, and he got his job back. He remained at work clean and a good employee for about five more years when he resigned for health-related reasons. About a year after this employee was reinstated at work, the union official who originally called me a murderer said to me something like, “You know you saved his life, don’t you?”

Taking responsibility for your actions

The second story involving tough love concerns a father and son I had working for me. The father was well-known and respected as a good honest worker and had been in the department for many years. The son had only been with us a short time when we began to have a number of performance-related issues with him – compliance with rules and procedures, timekeeping, quality of work etc. We suspected his issues were illicit substance-related but had no real evidence to support this, and he, of course, denied this was the case.

Once again, I followed the standard disciplinary path of escalated warnings and suspensions. Ensuring the employee was advised at each stage of the process what the next stage would be if he failed to improve his behaviour to the required standards until we finally reached the stage where I terminated his employment.

His father came to my office to see me about a fortnight before I terminated his son’s employment. He wanted to apologise for his son’s behaviour and his inability to control him. Having that discussion with an employee I liked and respected was one of the hardest I would have in my years as a manager, as I was reasonably certain what the final outcome would be.

About six months after I terminated his son’s employment, the father came to see me again. This time, he wanted to thank me for sacking his son. He said I had managed to do something the family had been unsuccessfully trying to do for a long time, and that was to force his son to face up to his drug problem and seek professional help. He said his son had stopped hanging with a bad crowd, that his marriage situation, whilst still shaky, was much improved, and that he had found another job.

The integrity of tough love

The actions of the manager are watched and interpreted by the entire workforce, and they adjust their behaviour according to that interpretation, be it good or bad. Whilst the two stories I’ve told you both involve dismissals, there were many more cases where the knowledge of the boundaries and the understanding of the consequences that would result from continued poor behaviour brought about the required change long before such action was necessary.

The example you set by imposing the penalties you say you will, sends a very clear and powerful message to the rest of the workforce.

Remember, a leader’s role is to nurture and develop their people. To do that you need to challenge them:

  • Set clear, well-defined boundaries.
  • Ensure the consequences of intentionally working outside the boundaries are well understood.
  • Consequences must be applied for both good and bad behaviour.

Practise tough love.

Jim Neilson provides a mentoring service to company managers and frontline leaders. The expertise he provides is based on the learnings he gained from his experiences and safety journey as an Operations Supervisor and Manager at BlueScope Steel’s Port Kembla works.


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