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HUMAN RESOURCES

An Employee Had a Run-In With the Law. Now What?
 

Here's how a human resources expert handled the recent arrest of one of her employees.

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Lately, I hear and read a lot of discussion about whether or not employees' conduct outside the workplace affects their jobs.

I recently faced one such dilemma, when I weighed whether one of my employees' actions on his own time warranted any kind of discipline at the office. Here's a quick recap: I was at a friend's house on a recent Sunday night when some more friends arrived after attending a pro football game. Apparently, it was a rowdy night at the game, and they ran into one of my employees, Joe. (I changed Joe's name to preserve his confidentiality).

My friends watched Joe get wilder and wilder as the game progressed and the beer flowed. Joe went from being boisterous to downright unruly, and was eventually arrested for disorderly conduct. Of course thinking nothing of it, my friends began retelling the whole story, up to the point when Joe was hauled off by stadium security and local cops.

Had I not been over at my friend's house, I'd probably never know that Joe had been arrested. Joe would have posted bail and returned to work Monday morning, business as usual. Joe is a stellar employee and, to be honest, I'd never suspect him to cause a ruckus, let alone become disorderly. Still, now that I knew this about Joe, what was I, as a business owner and his boss, do with the information? How was it going to impact his employment with me? Should it affect his employment with me?

I'm conflicted. While I feel strongly that employees should have a life outside work, they represent my business and me--their employer--even when they're not at the office. At the end of the day, if one of my customers were at the game and saw Joe's behavior or his arrest, they might be offended, or--worse yet--opt not to work with me again.

To help me grapple with the best course of action for my company as well as Joe, I asked myself four key questions:

1. Does the offense adversely affect the employee's work with me or the company?

If I think about it, Joe misbehaving at a football game doesn't really impact what he does on the job, when he's at work. When it comes to his overall performance and professional track record, Joe has been a stellar employee and never demonstrated any reason for concern.

Now, if Joe had been arrested for stealing, for instance, that would make me more concerned about trusting him with financial matters.

2. Was anyone in danger?

In this case--luckily--no. Sure, the situation was rife with the opportunity for danger, both to Joe and those around him. But I felt I had to look at the actual situation, not the hypothetical. Had the situation involved drunk driving or violence, I probably would have considered a different response.

3. How serious was the crime?

In this case, it was a misdemeanor. And while I certainly don't take misdemeanors lightly, I had to keep perspective. They are of course less serious than felonies.

4. What was the source of information?

Can I trust the friends from whom I'd heard the story? Is there any way to corroborate their account of what happened? It'd be awful to approach Joe and have misinformation.

After I weighed my responses to each of these questions, I decided to talk with Joe about the incident. 

I felt that by not asking him about it, it would always be in the back of my mind, and since we have mutual friends, there was always a chance he'd know that I had heard what happened. By bringing it out in the open, we'd be able to discuss it and--hopefully--move on.

At the same time, I believed that a conversation was all I needed to do to address the situation. A more serious offense or one that more directly related to his work at my company might have provoked further action.

When I approached Joe, I told him that I had learned through friends about his arrest at the football game, and I asked him to explain his side of the story. I also expressed my concerns, stressing a customer's point of view. Joe was surprised I'd heard and embarrassed too, but understood why I was worried.

Sure, there was a risk in confronting Joe. He could have lashed out, for instance. But I think as a small business owner, it is absolutely my responsibility to address any bumps in the road. My employees are part of my company's brand, and they all have to understand that. I think the conversation helped Joe, too, so he didn't feel he was hiding something from me.

Thankfully, Joe and I have continued to have a strong working relationship and he continues to be a standout performer with his clients. He is aware that at a service business, one with local clients, there is a natural overlap between work and personal life--one he has to take as seriously as I do.

How would you have handled it?

Last updated: Dec 18, 2012




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