Long Time Employee Can’t Return After Blow-up

Question to Ask the Workplace Doctors about an employee blow up and being fired:

I really don’t know where to begin. I have always loved my job and considered the people I work with as friends as we are a small office and a close knit group. One employee in particular has been with this company for 20 years and has contributed professionally to the growth and solid reputation of our company. This particular employee does have faults but in my opinion did not deserve what recently happened. He definitely has communication problems and at times does make the environment difficult to work in but things have always been resolved and we all get back to work.

Myself and another coworker, along with our new boss (who has a very passive leadership style) decided to confront this coworker about his behaviour over the previous two days. He was passing work onto a junior person and a shouting match resulted between him and another employee…of which they both need to take responsibility. By the end of the day all was fine. My boss didn’t want to confront the employee about his behaviour…he always says to focus on the problem and not the person…but I spoke up and wanted to address the problem.

This particular employee got very defensive and heated and ended up quitting in a moment of anger and frustration. My boss jumped up and followed him out, demanded his keys and told him he would call security if he didn’t leave immediately. Later that night, my coworker called to apologize and called my boss and apologized as well…and asked to return to work early the next morning. My boss refused but agreed to meet with him later in the week.

Long story short…my boss will not let this employee return to work. He has “laid him off” and seems to have made a final decision. He sat us all down and told everyone else and let this employee return moments after and apologize to everyone again and beg for his job. My boss then dismissed all of us and spoke with this employee alone…telling him he would not give him his job back. He has apologized, begged for his job, promised to do better, even hinted at accepting a decrease in pay or demotion as an alternate means of “punishment” but my boss will not hear of it.

He wasn’t out the door 2 minutes and my boss was on the phone with another person setting up an interview…someone he had in mind all along to replace this person. My co-worker did not quit…he said something in a moment of anger and frustration when he felt attacked and tried a number of times to make it right…but I guess 20 years of service counts for nothing around here. I feel tremendous guilt as I initiated the exchange that started all of this and feel as though I can’t continue to work here. What has happened to this person sickens me and I have no respect for anybody here anymore. Morale is non-existent. Does my coworker have any recourse here? Is there any legal way to get his job back. What further can be said to my boss to make him reconsider. His work has never been an issue…it’s always been outstanding…just at times his behaviour is difficult to deal with. It had been six months since the last blow up and this happens and my boss won’t even consider an alternate means of “punishment.” He’s gone…final decision…and we are all expected to return to work as usual, as though this incredibly unfair thing hasn’t happened. Any wisdom or advice would be greatly appreciated.

Signed, Feeling In The Middle

DearĀ Feeling In The Middle:

Your office situation reflects many issues that can affect workplaces. Suddenly the place you loved can seem like strange territory, and you can feel alienated and uncomfortable. Let me share some thoughts, so you can sort through things mentally and decide what direction you want to take. This will be one of my long, long answers because I can understand your feelings, and don’t want to give you a glib response.

1. Your essential question to us is: Does the former employee have legal recourse? Honestly, I doubt it. But, if he thinks there is a chance of that he should ask for a free consultation from an attorney who specializes in employment law. Many small businesses are exempt from some of the employment law requirements that might affect larger businesses. And in some states and provinces employees can be dismissed without showing a cause. Even in those in which that is the case, what happened at your work could be shown to be cause for dismissal. But, the fact is that the employee severed his employment by quitting. It is up to each of us not to say or do things that have such a dramatic impact on our lives, without thinking it through.That doesn’t mean there is no hope legally, and many times an attorney can at least negotiate a better financial arrangement at dismissal. But in a small business that might not be possible. The job has apparently been filled. I think the subject is closed, as to whether or not your former co-worker will return.

2. Before you feel guilty personally and negative about your boss, please consider this: There was more to this than one action on one day. This wasn’t a case of your boss walking in one day and firing someone for no reason. It also wasn’t a situation where you set up a poor innocent victim to get in trouble. It wasn’t even where your co-worker became angry and quit in a way that was completely and totally out of character for him. He did just what I would have expected he would do; he threw a temper tantrum. For years your co-worker likely thought he was indispensable to the company. He did good work, as far as actual work went, and he helped the company grow. But he forgot that the complete picture of good work is everything involved with getting the job done in a group; including communicating effectively and being willing to listen when someone asks us to change for the good of the group.Over the years, no matter what he did or said, an apology would later be accepted and things would get back to normal. Then, something else would happen and he would create a problem for others. But, an apology would be accepted and things would get back to normal. Your co-worker considered that the right and just way for his inappropriate behavior to be treated.

This is the textbook behavior for verbally or emotionally hurtful people who treat others poorly, then want it to be washed away with an apology and a smile. I don’t use the word abusive much, because it is so over-used, and often inappropriately used. I don’t know that your co-worker’s behavior could be considered abusive, but it appears it certainly was upsetting and unsettling on many occasions. Twenty years ago, the first time this happened, his boss then should have said, “Greg, if this happens again, you’re going to be fired.” Then when it happened he should have been fired. That would have saved the rest of you from the tension he has created, and saved him from thinking an apology would make things right.Your current boss didn’t fire your co-worker. It sounds like he only followed through on what has been nagging in the backs of a lot of people’s minds off and on for twenty years! He may very well have had someone else in mind that he would have liked to have working there, and who would be easier to work with. But a manager’s job is to ensure that the company goes on and succeeds, whoever is employed. I would say your former co-worker benefited from managerial loyalty for many years. He got paid regularly, he was made to feel important. His rude behavior was tolerated repeatedly. Finally he became more trouble than he was worth. And after it became obvious he was not going to show loyalty to his team; you and others who had endured him for years; your seemingly passive boss saw his chance. Your co-worker stormed out, your boss slammed and locked the door behind him.

I can imagine that your co-worker was stunned that things weren’t going to be handled like normal. He apologized like usual, but that didn’t work. Suddenly he realized what he had done, and he begged for his job back. But it was too late. The thing is that sometimes apologies aren’t enough. They are merely words that buy time until next time. This wouldn’t have been the end of his poor behavior, and you know it. This would have just calmed things down temporarily until next time. And look at the precedent it would have set in your company! It would have said to others, “No matter what you do or say, no matter how you say you quit, we’ll take you back.”

3. Now, consider this: You’re upset because you feel your new boss already had plans in mind, and has been cold about this. But keep in mind, he did not instigate the meeting that led to this. You and others did. In fact, you thought of him as rather weak about taking this on, from what you said. But like many people responsible for work, he may have been trying to work with the personalities as he found them when he was hired. He tried to focus on “problems, not people.” But people ARE often the source of problems, and all the intervention, counseling and support in the world won’t change the problems they cause. When your co-worker showed his true nature, your boss realized this was not someone who should be tolerated any longer, and he seized his opportunity.Years ago someone I supervised did a similar thing, but my manager let her come back. I was frustrated about it, but he pointed out that she had quit in a moment of anger, not really meaning it. I said the fact that she would quit like that, pointed out the very thing I was concerned about: That kind of refusal to discuss issues maturely was why she shouldn’t be working there. It took three more years, numerous similar situations and finally one big blow-up, before she was fired. She sued and lost, then appealed and lost, then went to the newspapers and talked about her fight for justice. Finally she left the state.

Here is my point: If my manager had let her quit when she wanted to, none of that would have happened. The fact that an employee has so little control over their emotions that they WILL quit and leave the building in a rage, is a clear indication that their mental, emotional and behavioral issues are not solvable by fellow employees or supervisors. You wouldn’t do that on your worst day, would you? Neither would I.So, don’t be too hard on your boss over this. It isn’t pleasant to go through, and he may feel he can’t talk to you about it. Plus, think how frustrating for him this is: He did what others pushed on him, and now they’re acting like he was at fault! If he hadn’t done anything he might have been accused of being weak. If he had let the guy come back and something similar or worse happened in the future he would have looked badly. He was stuck on this one!

4. A last thought: You were comfortable in your office setting because even if things weren’t always good, they were always familiar. Now you have a relatively new manager and a new co-worker, while a familiar face is gone. You were in the middle of an emotionally upsetting situation that would have a deeply disturbing affect on anyone; especially if you aren’t accustomed to anger and conflict of that nature. All of that is coming together to make you feel depressed and anxious. You may feel all alone in a place you suddenly don’t even know anymore. You say morale is low or nonexistent. I imagine the morale of the person who just got hired is fairly high! But the morale of others will vary according to their view of the work and their place in it.Morale is an overall sense of feeling positive about the work environment and work results.

If you want to stay in this job and feel better about it, put your first focus on work results. Your customers don’t know about any of this, and don’t care. They just want their work done well and in a financially beneficial way.Then, put your focus on the work environment, starting with your own work. See all of this as a chance to recreate your business and your work in a number of ways. What do you like best about it? Reinforce that. What might the new employee be feeling? Make him welcome and set the stage for professional communications. Start the way you mean to go on, in the area of give and take and dealing with conflicts.What could be done to ensure that no one individual creates a situation like this again? What could co-workers have done before to deal more effectively with communication problems? How could you enrich life at work for yourself? What is the responsibility each person has, apart from managers and supervisors, to make things better? What kind of support do your managers need? And of course, there is the bottom line question: Are things so bad you can’t stay; and do you think they will be a great deal better somewhere else?And don’t forget your life away from work.

This is a great time to emphasize your health, fitness, financial stability, home arrangement, hobbies, your faith, volunteer work, and other things that remind us that life is not all about our careers. Most of our close friends are away from the office. So, let’s put the emphasis where it belongs!I hope you will give yourself and everyone else some time after this upsetting situation. Your office and the departing employee essentially went through a work divorce! That isn’t easily dealt with by those of you who knew the person better than your manager knew him. But, that outside and unsympathetic perspective was likely what was needed to correct a long-term problem. If you have the time and wish to do so, please keep us informed about how things develop.

You may decide to move on, just as a way to make a change in your life and career. But you may find you can stay and be happy. There have been enough changes there that work will undoubtedly be different in the future; some of it may be better, some may be worse. But you sound as though you have enough inner strength to find a way to work effectively in any setting, and help others do so as well. Best wishes!

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina Lewis Rowe

Tina had a thirty-three year career in law enforcement, serving with the Denver Police Department from 1969-1994 and was the Presidential United States Marshal for Colorado from 1994-2002. She provides training to law enforcement organizations and private sector groups and does conference presentations related to leadership, workplace communications and customized topics. Her style is inspirational with humor.