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An Employee Dilemma—What Would You Do?

by Miki Saxon

I had an early call this morning from a troubled executive I’ll call Ron. He recently learned that one of his senior-level managers, “Terry” relieves his frustrations, both physically and verbally, on his family. He only learned about it because Terry’s wife filed for divorce citing ongoing abuse. Terry has no idea that anyone, let alone Ron, knows.

Ron’s horrified, but there’s no valid work-related reason to terminate the guy. He’s not contesting the divorce and no criminal charges are being filed. As a manager, Terry does a great job, treats his people well, is a good motivator, and always has excellent performance reviews.

Ron’s in a major quandary; knowing this colors all his interactions with Terry and it’s almost certain that the information will become common knowledge among their 200 employees over time.

At that point, he feels that people will wonder why Terry is still there, since his personal actions violate both acceptable social behavior and everything in the company’s culture. As they lose respect for him, his ability to motivate will plummet as will productivity.

When his performance deteriorates there’ll be valid reasons to terminate him, but by then the tremendous damage done to employee trust and morale will need to be repaired at considerable cost in both time and money.

Ron’s spoken to several HR people and employment lawyers looking for a way to finesse the situation with no results.

In all honesty, I wasn’t much help, either, but Ron did give me permission to post this in the hope that it will generate constructive suggestions.

10 Responses to “An Employee Dilemma—What Would You Do?”
  1. Wendy PiersallNo Gravatar Says:

    This is indeed a great question! Although I would have to say that in a divorce, each side of the story is vastly different than the other side of the story. I know, because I almost got divorced, and it brought out the worst in both of us – and I know my husband was willing to stoop to levels that he normally would never touch when things got very bad.

    The reason I bring this up is because I find it interesting that although his wife is citing ongoing abuse, this isn’t a pattern that has emerged in Terry’s work relationships. In my experience, truly abusive people tend to carry that behavior into many of their relationships, not just their married relationship.

    If Terry treats his people well, is a good motivator, and gets excellent performance reviews, then it might be fair to only judge Terry on the actual interactions he has in the workplace.

    Certainly, if his behavior changes, that is another story. And I’m not insinuating that his wife is outright lying, either. What I am saying is that we probably don’t REALLY have enough information to make a true judgment call on Terry’s character. And until we do, it wouldn’t be fair to Terry to place our own meanings and judgments upon him, which could hurt Terry, Ron, and the company as a whole if it turns out the information about his wife isn’t the ‘full story’ (which I can pretty much guarantee that it is – it always “Takes Two to Tango”, imho).

  2. Liz RyanNo Gravatar Says:

    This message is alarming, but not because of Terry’s situation. It’s Ron I am wondered about. Ron should be evaluating Terry’s performance on the job, and nothing else. When Ron feels “people will wonder why [Terry] is still there,” he is projecting his own views about a confidential outside-of-work situation onto the workplace. People won’t know about Terry’s personal life unless Terry tells them. Terry’s divorce shouldn’t, mustn’t, “color all [Ron’s] interactions with Terry” and I don’t see how Ron’s interactions with Terry could cause Terry’s divorce to become public knowledge, in any case!

    Work is work and home is home and there is nothing in this story to indicate that Ron should be treating Terry any differently from any other employee. There are also two sides to every story and the fact that Terry’s wife filed for divorce citing abuse is in no way proof that abuse occurred.

    There is no way and no need to “finesse the situation.” Ron should continue to manage and evaluate Terry based on Terry’s performance and leave Terry to manage his own personal life.

    Liz Ryan
    workplace commentator

  3. Linda LopekeNo Gravatar Says:

    What Terry does on his own time in his personal life is not Ron’s concern. Ron’s relationship with Terry is limited to on-the-job performance. Ron’s opinions of how Terry leads his personal life should not factor in to his evaluation of Terry’s on-the-job performance.

    I’m sure Ron does not have the time or interest in knowing the details of how every employee is conducting his/her life outside of the office. Nor would they want the employees knowing about his personal life.

    The situation with Terry and his wife is, in fact, none of Ron’s business. Nor is it any of Terry’s colleagues’ concern. If Terry’s work if what it should be, and his treatment of co-workers is what is should be, that is all Ron needs to care about enough to monitor and acknowledge.

    Ron’s experience with Terry is what it is. Terry’s wife’s experience with Terry may or may not be what Ron thinks it is. Indeed, Ron would have no firsthand knowledge of what goes on at home and needs to stop letting his imagination dictate his response to Terry at work (where he has already noted there are no issues).

    Linda Lopeke
    Fortune 500 expert

  4. SarahNo Gravatar Says:

    This sounds similar to a lot of Dear Abby questions about knowing something awful about someone. In my opinion her usual advice applies here at once: Don’t jump to conclusions. You have *heard*, but do you *know*?

    Besides, for whom would you rather work: someone who “does a great job, treats his people well, is a good motivator, and always has excellent performance reviews” but is rumored to have been abusive to his wife, or any of the following characters I’ve actually worked with.
    a) Someone who is brilliant but insecure, so spends over half his time at work trying to undermine his employees. The rest of the time he spends calling meetings and finding a female to take minutes. He spends zero time actually producing anything.
    b) Someone who is political and will play games to get what he wants. He thinks that this is buying him a good reputation, whereas everyone knows he’s not pulling his weight, and they’ll work for the guy who backs up his people, any day.
    c) Someone who spends long hours at work, but doesn’t get any more done than people who go home after 8 hours a day. He’s probably trying to avoid an unpleasant home life.
    d) Someone you can’t trust. He says X and you have to wonder whether X is really true or he’s just saying it again. He says he’ll DO X and you pretty much know he won’t.

    I’d hire Terry. He’s a proven thing.
    Remember: even on the Cops show, “All suspects are innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.” Ron is not a courtroom.


  5. Constance KobylarzNo Gravatar Says:

    I wholeheartedly agree with Liz on this. You did not say how Ron found out about the divorce but I worry that the information comes as gossip. It is a bit unusual for companies to monitor divorce court filings.

    Please urge Ron to keep in mind that attorneys often allege complaints that are proven unfounded. It is the job of the attorney to gain the best position for the client.

    Some attorneys are very creative and dramatic in how they characterize events because the stakes are high: income, pensions, houses, children, pets, cars are all up for grabs. Terry may not have done any of the things in the divorce complaint.

    Ron needs to focus on Terry’s work. Period.

  6. MikiNo Gravatar Says:

    It’s nice to have my own reactions confirmed, and in defense of Ron, I should say that he’s not in disagreement with you. As to how he found out, his community is one with a strong grapevine, which he generally ignores, but this time the information came from the judge in the case, who is in a non-business organization with Ron. I think Ron can deal with his own feelings, but between the small town and the big-mouthed judge, he has reason to be concerned about the long-term ramifications.

  7. Sarah Gayer CHRPNo Gravatar Says:

    I can understand where Ron is coming from but he has allowed his own morale, values and beliefs to cloud his judgement as a manager. Yes Ron may have done what is being said but no one has any proof except Terry and his wife. Ron needs to be careful in how he continues to relate with Terry and ensure that he does not allow his feelings to cloud his judgement about Terry. Terry may be an excellent performer and that is all that Ron should be concerned about and not look for things to prove that he was right about Terry.

  8. Diana LindstromNo Gravatar Says:

    As an executive coach, I would advise Ron to speak directly with Terry about this. That’s the only way to get rumors squashed.

    As for the judge, Ron needs to consider reporting that person to the state bar association. Telling tales outside of court about an active case on his/her docket is a violation of legal ethics.

    I find that the direct and honest approach to “people problems” leads to resolution instead of stalemate.

  9. MAPping Company Success Says:

    […] 2006 I wrote a post detailing a VP’s discomfort after finding out that the wife of one of his senior reports had cited verbal […]

  10. MAPping Company Success Says:

    […] 2006 I wrote An Employee Dilemma—What Would You Do?— be sure to read the comments, because they are critical in juxtaposition to the Times […]

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