On Monday a police officer was denied service at a Noodles & Co. in northern Virginia. A cook pointed to the officer and said to the cashier, loud enough for the officer to hear, "You better pull me off the line, because I'm not serving that."

She and the cashier laughed. The uniformed officer said, "I guess you don't want my money," and walked away.

The incident is the latest in a string of problems for Noodles & Co: The CEO recently stepped down, the company just announced revenues would fall short of analyst forecasts, and the chain closed a number of underperforming stores last year.

In response to the incident involving the female police officer, the company said, "Noodles & Co. expects the highest ethical and personal behavior from its team members. We value each of our guests and are committed to treating everyone with dignity and respect. We do not tolerate any form of discrimination."

What the statement doesn't say is what will happen to the employees involved. And that's OK; every company has the right to keep disciplinary actions confidential. But it does raise a larger question: If you were their boss, what would you do?

Would you fire them?

And if you didn't fire them, as a leader would you be able to put what happened aside and not let it affect how you treat them in the future?

That's tough.

When an employee makes a mistake -- especially a major mistake -- it's easy to forever view them through the lens of that mistake. Or when an otherwise solid employee consistently struggles in one performance area, it's easy to view them through the lens of that weakness.

I know I have.

When I worked in book manufacturing, a prepress technician once made what turned out to be a $120,000 error by leaving a small piece of tape on film before plates were exposed. As a result, two words were missing in thousands of books.

Other people in downstream processes should also have caught the mistake, but ultimately he was responsible. In every other regard, he was a great employee with a 20-year record of outstanding performance. Still, whenever I saw him I thought about that mistake, and I can't say it never affected the way I treated him.

I like to think it didn't, but I can't be certain.

At the risk of hyperbole, that's potentially tragic. He, like every employee, was a sum of his parts. He made a major mistake but was also one of the hardest-working and most productive employees in the facility. Does one mistake forever tarnish his record? Does one mistake turn him into a subpar employee?

Those are tough questions to answer -- questions that can be argued intelligently from either point of view. His error cost more than our spoilage budget for the entire year. It also created a major issue with one of our biggest customers, partly because the need for rework impacted their ability to get books to bookstores on time but also because the author (a quintessential 800-pound gorilla) heard about the mistake and threatened to sign with another publisher once his contract was up.

At the same time it was just one error in a job where the potential for mistakes was extremely high.

Did one major mistake turn a previously outstanding employee into a poor performer whose work should always be in question? I don't know.

What I do know is when I looked at that employee through just one lens I missed the rest of him.

If you look at your employees through just one performance lens, you miss the rest of them -- and you mismanage the rest of them, too.

Did that mistake make him an overall outstanding employee with one blemish on a superb record or an employee that should not be considered for promotions and other opportunities?

Maybe neither. Probably both.

But what it did make him is human: Just like me, just like you, just like your employees.

Employees are, first and foremost, people. Do your best to always treat them that way, even -- maybe especially -- when things go terribly wrong.

Published on: Jul 28, 2016
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