When I saw Joe* my stomach lurched. The last time I had seen him was 20 years ago. The day I fired him.
Time is unkind to all but seemed especially unkind to Joe. His face was etched with lines and his eyes, once bright, were flat and lifeless. He shuffled over and I tentatively reached to shake his hand.
"Hi Joe," I said. "How are you?"
He glanced away. "I guess I'm doing all right," he said.
Then he asked to borrow $20.
I was a manufacturing supervisor in the late 1990s when our department implemented an employee-empowerment program designed to shift as much responsibility as possible down to the team level. In time, employee committees became responsible for scheduling vacations, evaluating team members, and making hiring decisions, and we became coaches and "facilitators" rather than supervisors.
I definitely supported it. I started on the shop floor, so I know employees at every level are always capable of handling greater responsibility than normally given. Plus, responsibility yields accountability. Accountability creates engagement. Empowerment fuels a powerful cycle that can take on an awesome life of its own.
And perhaps unsurprisingly, with a little training and guidance, some employees turned out to be far better leaders than many supervisors.
Of course at first most of our employees were skeptical. How much responsibility would we truly delegate? How much authority would we truly give up? At the first sign of trouble, would we stop guiding and start dictating?
In response, we went too far, too fast, erring on the side of greater employee authority so they could learn to trust our commitment.
Two weeks after Joe was hired, Mike*, the evaluation coordinator for his team, came to my office to discuss Joe's performance.
"He's terrible," Mike said.
I asked for examples. We identified weaknesses and deficiencies. We brought Joe in to review his evaluation and detail areas for improvement. Standard stuff: some employees are slower to catch on, others just need a reality check, but most come up to speed.
Two weeks later, Mike said Joe's performance had not improved. So we put him on a performance plan, listing skills he needed to display and specific performance targets he needed to reach. Joe said he understood.
Later, though, he came to me and said, "I know I'm a little slow, but I also think they're too hard on me. It's not that I can't do the job. I think the real problem is they don't like me."
So I found ways without being obvious to see better for myself, like hanging out on the line talking to an operator while keeping one eye on Joe. (After all, I couldn't make it seem like I didn't trust the team's input.) I thought he was a little slow, but not dramatically. Mike's assessment seemed a little harsh.
But still. The team worked with him every day and no matter how hard I tried I would never know his performance as well as they did. (Which, of course, was the reason we wanted employees to evaluate each other. The people who know your performance best are the people who work beside you every day.)
Two months into his 90-day probationary period Mike said Joe's performance was still sub-par. We brought Joe in, gave him a formal warning, and explained exactly what he needed to do in order to meet job requirements. We created a plan to provide additional training. He said he was trying hard but would try even harder.
A month later Mike turned in Joe's 90-day evaluation. "He doesn't cut it," he said. "We need to fire him."
"That's a big step," I said. "Are you sure?"
"I am," Mike said. "We all are. Check out the individual reviews from the rest of the team."
According to their evaluations it was clear Joe hadn't met requirements. While I still had doubts, the proof was in front of me. The system had spoken. Joe needed to go. So I fired him.
And he cried.
He said he had tried really hard. He said he knew he didn't fit in but he couldn't help it. He told me he had never fit in, not in school, not with friends, not at jobs. He didn't know why but he always seemed to be the outsider. He felt his work wasn't the problem for other employees; working with him was the problem.
He begged for one more chance.
I told Joe we had given him a number of chances and unfortunately there were no chances left. I walked him to the plant entrance (we had to escort fired employees from the building, a "walk of shame" I always hated because it only served to further humiliate a person already devastated), shook his hand, and wished him well.
But I never forgot Joe. Unlike other employees I had fired, I often questioned whether I had done the right thing. Sure, based on our system I had done everything "right," but had I actually done the right thing? Had I ignored the intuition that comes from long years of experience?
Had I let Joe become a victim of our drive towards empowerment?
What makes it worse is that some months earlier I facilitated a promotion committee meeting made up of employees using evaluation data to rank employees eligible for an open machine-operator position.
Gene* emerged as the top candidate. Yet some in the room had doubts. "I know he looks good on paper," one explained, "but I don't think he has what it takes." Others agreed.
I didn't. "I understand you have concerns," I said, "but by every standard he's the best candidate. You can't bypass him based on feelings you can't quantify. How would you feel if that happened to you?" The dissenters grumbled but grudgingly agreed.
In the weeks to come, I had to step in a few more times. Several operators on his team felt he wasn't learning quickly enough and wanted him demoted. So I watched. Gene was slow, but once he knew how to do something, he really knew how. Experience--experience shop floor employees didn't yet have--told me all Gene needed was a little patience and a little time.
So I made sure he got it.
But I didn't do the same for Joe.
I reached for my wallet as Joe told me his story. He had worked a bunch of jobs but none that lasted. He had messed up his knee and didn't have health insurance so it never healed right. He talked about opportunities missed and turns not taken.
Later I thought about the role I had played in his life. Maybe if I had tried harder or better trusted my judgment things would have turned out differently. He may never have been an outstanding employee, but in time he might have turned out OK.
Working for what was at the time a leading employer in the area, holding a solid job with good benefits and plenty of overtime...who knows what Joe's life might have been?
Would he have someday been like Gene, who turned out to be an outstanding operator and then went on to become a machinist with an incredible eye for detail and precision? Maybe not. Probably not.
But who knows?
Hiring, firing, disciplining, promoting...each is an everyday task for a leader. You have to make tough, often agonizing decisions about employees. So you think, you decide, you act, and then you put that decision behind you and move on.
That's the job. Someone has to do it. That someone is you.
Yet doing that job can dramatically change the life of other people. No matter how hard you try to get every decision that changes another person's life right, sometimes you won't. Those decisions--and those regrets--you soon realize you will live with forever.
Those decisions--and those regrets--you soon realize will also change your life.
Hats off to all of you who try desperately to do the job right...and then pay the price for, however occasionally, wondering if you might have gotten it wrong. No one knows the price you pay.
But they should.
* not their real names