I am a Superintendent in a unionized maintenance shop. I’ve terminated many employees over the years. Most deserved it as they had violated rules over and over.

I recently terminated a man with three kids and a wife who was out of work. He had been with us nine years. He worked third shift. He was caught sleeping twice in a three month period. He was warned the first time and suspended for a day. The next time he was caught laying inside a bus, asleep with his shoes off.

I had to sit in the mediation and tell him and all in the room why this had to stick and he could not come back even on a last chance letter. I felt like if we give him a third chance, then we have to do that for everyone and most folks will think the first two times caught are free and they will sleep at will.

Anyway, the termination stuck and he has no chance of coming back. The Union will not take this one to arbitration.

The more I think about this guy and the situation he is now in the more it is killing me inside. I’m O.K. and still working and he is now in a very bad place in his life. He begged for his job back and cried. It almost killed me to stay firm but now. . . as it is all over I can’t sleep at night. I’m thinking of going to our EAP but will they tell others and will I get known as a bad manager.

I’ve never felt so bad. I even considered going to our G.M. and trying to have the case opened back up and bring the guy back on a last chance letter.

I’m so sorry. I really am. Terminating people is one of the most difficult tasks managers have to carry out. And it is a part of the responsibilities. At least, it should be.

When I was doing mass layoffs, it was easy for me to sit in my office and look at names on my monitor and do all the paperwork and dot i’s and cross t’s because I didn’t personally know these people. I didn’t know that Karen was a single parent and that Joe’s wife was sick. I didn’t know that Sue had just bought a big new house with a mortgage to match. My company was so large that I just didn’t know most of the people I dealt with.

You, on the other hand, know this guy. I bet you like him as well. Which makes it all the more painful to have to terminate someone. But, you did the right thing.

Now, people can point to this and say, “see managers and HR are heartless thugs! Get one toe out of line and that’s it! How come you didn’t talk to the man? He probably has x, y, or z and so he needs extra sleep. What about reasonable accommodations?”

Since we got those comments out of the way, I’ll respond. Sleeping on the job is not like making a minor error. Especially when he’s gone to the trouble to find a quiet spot to lay down and removed his shoes. I’m also willing to bet money that the two times he’s been caught are only two of many times he’s slept.

He got a warning the first time. He knew the consequences. He chose to do this again. If he had problem x, y, or z he should have brought it up with the boss in the first place. Most managers are nice people who want to help out their staff. But, we can’t help if we don’t know what is going on.

When it comes down to serious rule violations, you have to lay down a hard line. His co-workers know that he’s been sleeping on the job. They know he’s been fired for it. If you brought him back, there would be resentment amongst your other staff. Sure, they may say loudly that you were heartless for firing him, but they also don’t want to be working with someone who’s going to run off and take a nap.

I know you feel terribly guilty–because his life is so much worse off now. But, you have to remember that he chose this. If he had problems, he didn’t choose to go to his supervisor. He didn’t choose to go to his union. He didn’t choose to go to HR. He chose to to take off his shoes and take a nap. We all get to make choices, but we don’t all get to choose the consequences. He knew what the consequence would be (if he got caught, that is) and he chose to do it anyway.

I have sympathy for him. It’s not an easy situation to be in. But I would not, under any circumstances, hire him back.

I’m sorry you had to go through this. You made the right choice. The fact that his union wouldn’t advocate for him either indicates that they consider this a serious problem as well. I hope he finds a new job. It will make you sleep better at night.

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35 thoughts on “Termination Blues

  1. This is similar to raising kids. I could try to "get along" and not have one of them sit (versus get up and play), but this sets a bad example for the rest of the kids. Clear communication, consistent expectations set for all (kids) is the only way to go. No, you won't be liked, but you at some point I need to remember this is for the individual's good as well as the family/organization. Thanks for sharing this story, we can all learn and empathize.

  2. Was his question about going to EAP for himself because he's having trouble coping or for the person he fired? I assumed it was for himself, but since you didn't address that part, I was curious.

  3. This is such a tough situation – I am an HR professional and I, too, have lost sleep over situations in which I felt terrible for the person because of their personal situation. But, Evil HR Lady is right, you did the right thing. You did the FAIR thing. I think calling the EAP (which is confidential in most cases and you can ask when you call to ensure such is true) is a great idea to help you deal with the feelings of guilt here.

  4. Every time I have to fire someone, I feel exactly the same way, and it's awful. But it really does have to be done. Especially where he was so negligent, you did the right thing. Otherwise, what would stop everyone from sleeping on third shift?

    We all make decisions, and the employee chose to do this. The only way it would be unfair is if it were out of the blue, but it wasn't.

  5. Great post Ms. Evil — it really sucks to have to fire people (well, most people. There was this one guy…. ).

    You didn't touch on the EAP. I would encourage the supervisor (and the former employee for that matter) to utilize the EAP. Any respectable EAP won't report who is using the EAP or for what. In HR, we get aggregate usage data at best.

    I've been there. I've suffered through depression, some of it brought on by the number of layoff's/terminations/rif's I've had to do. The EAP is provided as a benefit, and is one of the best resources in a crisis situation.

    For all of you reading these comments, managers or employees, encourage the use of an EAP!! (no, I don't work for an EAP provider).

  6. Well, I guess that I will be the heartless one here – He was caught sleeping on the job. Why wasn't he fired sooner!?

    I'll bet that there is already some resentment on the part of co-workers because he has "gotten away with" this behaviour before. (I once had a co-worker who had "mental health" issues. On her bad days she would quietly slip away leaving me to do all the work. She even had the nerve to forward her phone to mine without telling me! Management was turning a blind eye to her behaviour as well as the behaviour of the other co-worker who would take a three-hour (or more) "liquid lunch.")

    It also never ceases to amaze me how so many folks have "sympathy" for those who have to fire others (and yes, I have had to do it myself). Suck it up – that's why you are paid better than other employees in the company. That is part of your job. If you can't stand the heat; then, get out of the kitchen.

  7. Have to say, I agree with Charles on this one. Part of our job as HR professionals is dealing with difficult situations, like firing someone. You know this when you go in the field. It's not fun or even easy, but it is part of our job. Other employees depend on us to do what is fair. Sleeping on the job, well, that is grounds for termination. What if everyone did it? It had to be done. For every person that is terminated, they have their own story, we can't make decisions based on their personal life. It's business, not personal.

  8. Superintendent – First off, you did the right thing. This employee desevered to be fired. His actions, not yours, caused him to lose his job.

    Now let's get to you. I understand how you are feeling. It is normal, and honestly a good thing, that you feel bad about this situation. This means that you are a caring person, that you have not become jaded and indifferent to others' situations.

    If you can not get past this pain, please get help. I recommend using the EAP resource available to you. In my experience even HR does not know who uses these resources as it is conducted by external counselors. If you don't feel you can EAP, talk to someone. See a counselor, talk to your priest or even conversation with family members can help. It is very important that you take the time to work through this and talk to someone.

    Others have said this, but I will repeat it. This was not your fault, it was the employees. You had a job to do and you have done it with everyone's best interest at heart. Hopefully this situation was a (no pun intended) "wake-up" call to get his own life in order and fix whatever was causing him to need to sleep during work. Now you need to take care of yourself and develop tools to help you move on.

    Good luck.

  9. Great advise! It's very difficult to fire someone but EHRL is right. He chose this. He knew he'd be fired and he went to sleep anyway.

    None of that helps you internally. The hardest part is the human side of human resources. I encourage the original poster to talk to his EAP. They are bound by the same confidentialities as your doctor and have to abide by HIPAA laws which means unless you are a danger to yourself or others, nothing you say can be discussed. Not even the fact that you called can be disclosed.

    I get a quarterly report that simply tells me 3 people called the EAP. I don't know if they are employees, spouses, etc. I just know it's being utilized and is worth the money we pay for it.

  10. I second the advice to use the EAP. They cannot disclose who uses it, and it is well worth your time.

  11. You're a decent person and you're suffering from cumulative stress. It's an occupational hazard of any caring profession.

    Take the advice of your peers and talk to someone. It's about you now.

    Lois Gory

  12. I used to work midnights… and slept on the job occasionally. At that job, it was possible to do so without impacting productivity.

    But I agree with EHRL on this one. Midnights are a unique enough deal where any reasonable manager would have worked with the employee, or at the very least, heard him out and talked with him about what was going on. Working midnights is a life-changing job — and not just for the 8 hours the employee is at work each day.

    Also, the fact the union wouldn't go to bat is telling. Apparently, sleeping at this job is a productivity issue, and that's much harder to overlook or defend.

  13. To Charles and Anonymous:

    The day a person stops caring about or considering the effect his/her decision is going to have on a person is the day that person should quit HR.

  14. It is hard to let people go, but sometimes they make the decision for you. This guy went to sleep on company time, and you have a policy against it. Seems pretty open & shut to me.

    Co-workers who say to me, "Wow, I wouldn't be able to do your job" don't really make me feel better. But what I do know is the person across the table from me at a termination meeting is *always* having a worse day than me. I'm never going to win that contest. Sure, it's hard to fire someone you might know will have a hard time finding work and supporting a family. But if they violated company policy, what else are you supposed to do?

    Again, he put himself in that position that day by sleeping on the job. And just because he didn't do his job, doesn't mean you should skip doing yours.

    EAPs are really confidential – I get a quarterly report that says 4 people called, never any names. You should definitely contact them without any worries.

  15. To Anonymous;

    I didn't say that they don't care – but being overly caring for one who is clearly "playing the system" or whatever is not fair to others who play by the rules and have to pick up after the bums – so, exactly how is that "caring"?

    Yes, it sucks to have to fire someone (I said so in my comment and I have had to do it myself) BUT, if you are losing sleep over it or it is bothering one so much that he/she wants to REHIRE this person then I still say "get out of the kitchen"!

    Or perhaps, I should say – how about showing some of that "caring" for those who actually do the work!

  16. @Anonymous said "The day a person stops caring about or considering the effect his/her decision is going to have on a person is the day that person should quit HR."

    This is so true. I decided to quit HR the day I had an employee being terminated for attendance scream at me that she would be homeless and that she was going to sit at the front entrance with her son everyday so I could laugh at them. My only thought was I'm glad I use the back entrance. It was time to go.

    After some graduate school and starting a family, I'm better now and actually looking forward to going back. But I also know this time, I have to take better care of myself and not let the actions/choices of others eat at my soul.

    To the OP, please talk to someone and if it helps, volunteer with an organization you like and help others. Even if you can't help the ex-employee, you can still help someone else who needs it and wants the help.

  17. I just want to say, I completely related to the post, and have had that mix of feelings. And I completely agree with Evil HR Lady. Once you gave the warning, it was his choice, and you should not feel the burden of guilt any longer. One of the ways I cope with the responsibility for hiring and firing is to make sure I have given adequate coaching and performance warnings before termination. You did the right thing. Stop beating yourself up over it.

  18. While Charles' comments may have been harsh he does make a very good point: it is not fair to the other employees if you don't fire someone who is breaking the rules.

    If you read the posts in the customerssuck.com forums an issue that comes up repeatedly is Spineless Managers. Employees *will* resent you for not sticking to policy or the decisions you make. You don't have to be inflexible but if you cave every time someone complains you'll make life harder for your good employees.

    Think of it this way: How much trouble would you be in if they let the guy back and your best people left because they were tired of picking up his slack? Would your bosses appreciate losing them because you hired back someone who keeps slacking?

    You have to look out for all of your employees and yourself. Don't feel bad for not putting one person before everyone else.

  19. I can't help but wonder if the HR Mgr asked him if a medical issue causing him to sleep on the job. If he was undergoing a med regime change, or even had sleep apnea, the company could be found in violation of the ADA for not having engaged in the interactive process willingly.

    I also wonder about the context of his sleeping. Was it during his scheduled break or lunch? Or, did he start sleeping on a 15 min break and it just happened to turn into a 20 or 30 min break quite a bit? That's not so much a "sleeping on the job" problem as a "failure to return from breaks in a timely manner" problem.

    He is obviously a good worker otherwise, so why didn't HR sit down with him and play the part of the counselor. Why is he so sleepy? Maybe the EAP could have helped him with time management skills now that he is on the night shift. Was that referral made?

    I understand that a performance bar must be set and examples made of employees who defy directives. But, the unfeeling, insensitive HR stereotype that we've all grown to become associated with by nature of a job title didn't come about by happenstance.

  20. Let me second the recommendations about the EAP, but with a condition. I've seen enough workplaces where supposedly confidential use of the EAP for a variety of issues has managed to "leak" to places where it shouldn't be. I would check on this history of the EAP before using it.

    If you can't trust the EAP, you should consider finding someone to help and paying out of your own pocket.

  21. My predecessor came close to terminating an ineffective and discourteous employee on several occasions, but always backed off because of difficulties in the employee's personal life. I still feel bad (five years later) about having terminated this individual when I became the supervisor, but it was the right thing for the office, which has run better and been pleasanter since then. My regret for the problems caused or exacerbated in her life is real, but so is my frustration that my predecessor never took what was an obvious step given the long history of poor performance. I'll add my voice to those who say you did the right thing.

  22. That's a tough situation for all concerned. I feel for the supervisor and the terminated employee.

    I'm a little uneasy with many of the earlier comments. It seems to me that the possibility of a sleep disorder deserves more thoughtful consideration. My point is not that terminating the employee was necessarily wrong even if there was a sleep disorder. You can't (for example) drive a bus if can't stay awake, whatever the cause. However, with some awareness of the medical possibilities there may be an opportunity to make an important contribution to a co-worker's health and well being. I don't think that saying only "you did the right thing" adequately recognizes this.

    Sleep disorders are potentially dangerous and very damaging to quality of life. Sleep apnea, for example, is common and it can have serious cardiovascular (and other) health consequences. That's if it doesn't kill you outright if you fall asleep while driving. Its onset is gradual and rather insidious. It can easily take months of significant symptoms before a patient is aware enough of the problem to see a doctor, and more time before the disorder is diagnosed and treated. Issuing a warning to the employee (for the first incident) seems like a good opportunity to at least point the employee toward some information, and to indicate (implicitly) a willingness to support him or her in a course of medical treatment if that's what is needed.

    Some of the comments about it being the employee's choice, although usually true in a narrow sense, frankly indicate a lack of knowledge of basic facts of sleep medicine. In particular, shift work is an extremely significant contributor to sleep problems, and in my opinion the employer has some responsibility to understand and mitigate the risks it entails for employees.

    I don't know the full circumstances, obviously. It could be a drug problem. It could, very plausibly, be a middle aged man putting on weight and developing a case of obstructive sleep apnea. It could be something entirely different.

    I'm not in HR myself (perhaps this is obvious), and I'm not sure of the best way to approach the potential medical issues, but I think there is a serious missed opportunity if the employer does not provide its managers some education and support regarding sleep issues in a setting where employees are working shifts. If that did not happen in this case, it is one more thing to regret about the situation.

  23. Look, we can chatter about sleep apnea and 2nd chances and compassion and butterflies and rainbows all day long. Let's use the reasonable person test.

    Would any of us, as a reasonable person, after having been caught napping on the graveyard shift, (1) ignore the warning (2) fail to bring up some sleep disorder/meds/disease of the sort being dreamed up here or (3) forget about the fact we were sole provider to hungry mouths in a sucky economy?

    To quote my Brit friends, not bloody likely.

    The writer's self flagellation on this one seems unfounded. The evidence says this employee was just ASKING for it. So he cried. He wept about the consequences. And yeah, the consequences suck.

  24. People with sleep disorders don't take off their shoes and lie down. They go to sleep where they are, as they are.

  25. A friend once told me "you can do whatever you want to do, you just have to be willing to deal with the consequences." The employee chose to sleep, taking the shoes off was a sign of that. He knew the consequences, he was warned. His decision. His screw up. He got exactly what was coming.

  26. I see we've had a few visitors from the Just World, skeptics on sleep disorders. If it makes it easier for the the tough love and accountability crew, let's agree that the napping was irresponsible. Does that tell us whether or not he has a sleep disorder? Who knows? People with sleep disorders don't automatically demonstrate good judgment in dealing with the symptoms. As a supervisor, you have two issues: dealing responsibly with the behavior, and dealing responsibly with an indication (no more at this stage) of a possible sleep disorder or other medical issue.

    If there is a sleep disorder and it can be appropriately addressed before getting to the point of termination, you may (best case) save a job and a life. For me, that's a good enough reason to consider the possibility. But what I see as an opportunity may appear to others as a burden. You're not a doctor, medicine is not your job, and the employee should deal with his own medical problems (if any). If you're sure you feel that way, I don't think you have a positive ethical obligation to go farther, so proceed without the extra issue. I admire that approach less, but we all have blind spots, lack of resources, and so on that limit our freedom of action.

    However, don't invent your own "common sense" diagnostic criteria to rule out medical conditions you'd rather not think about. For example:

    El Comodoro says he didn't mention a sleep disorder, so he doesn't have one. Well, it does probably mean he doesn't have a diagnosis, but you might as well say you don't have a vitamin deficiency, or early stage cancer, until your doctor tells you about it.

    Wally Bock says people with sleep disorders go to sleep where they are, as they are. That's right, it's not a sleep disorder until you've run a car off the road! Look, we're talking about conditions whose symptoms include excessive sleepiness. There is a spectrum of severity, and narcoleptics with untreated whole-body cataplexy are fortunately very rare. Just because he remained capable of planning his nap doesn't mean he wasn't driven by sleepiness to want to take the nap.

    The most damning fact in most people's mind seems to be taking off the shoes. I agree, this indicates premeditation. Here's a question: when/if you decide to goof off at work, how high would a nap be on your list of things to do? My experience is that the internet, the telephone, and long breaks and lunches are common while napping is rare. So why is it the activity this guy risked his job for?

    To sum up, if you're sleepy at times of day that seem inappropriate, if it's interfering with your quality of life (not limited to getting you fired), and you don't know why: consider seeing a doctor, who can use medical techniques like an EEG (and not your footwear) to reach a diagnosis.

  27. I disagree with the HR person's action. It seems that in some of your posts, when people ask questions, they load up on "reasons" to justify their question. In other words, they come across as though they're presenting a balanced, fair question when they're not. It also seems like many of the HR posters (giving their comments), including you (EHRL) tend to follow a "little book" of rules. The world today is like no other that many of us have faced. Even if the employee "chose" to sleep or "planned it" — perhaps he felt or even knew what HR's response (or his manager's response) would have been had he asked for help. HR follows rules. It doesn't look for solutions. Sorry. That's the way I see it. After two violations, rather than throwing out the rule–another time and you're out–HR or someone in the firm should have worked with the person. No time? Too much on your plate? Well, that's what the employee may have been experiencing as well. If HR doesn't want to be "H," then it should change it's name to RR (Rules Resources).

  28. What I find confounding and quite perplexing is that many executives and directors don't follow the rules. They wreck banks, they run auto companies into the ground, they ask for bailouts, and they end up doing this all in the name of greed.

    The guy clearly shouldn't sleep on the job and he should be disciplined, even terminated, for actions that affect the overall performance of the team. However, in light of our economic collapse, we have very little reform, very little accountability, and double standards all the way up the ladder. We have executives and evil HR people that protect themselves in the name of money and greed. They'll ruin the entire economy, people's life savings, and a company; yet, they're given 200 million pay outs for their management.

    Let's quit looking at the one individual that may have a significant health problem, be going through a sticky divorce, or working multiple jobs to pay his/her f^&ing medical bills. What do we truly gain by making an example out of the lowest people on the totem pole?

  29. What I find confounding and quite perplexing is that many executives and directors don't follow the rules. They wreck banks, they run auto companies into the ground, they ask for bailouts, and they end up doing this all in the name of greed.

    The guy clearly shouldn't sleep on the job and he should be disciplined, even terminated, for actions that affect the overall performance of the team. However, in light of our economic collapse, we have very little reform, very little accountability, and double standards all the way up the ladder. We have executives and evil HR people that protect themselves in the name of money and greed. They'll ruin the entire economy, people's life savings, and a company; yet, they're given 200 million pay outs for their management.

    Let's quit looking at the one individual that may have a significant health problem, be going through a sticky divorce, or working multiple jobs to pay his/her f^&ing medical bills. What do we truly gain by making an example out of the lowest people on the totem pole?

  30. Our world need not be a punitive one. There is much talk about the man's infraction and the manager's little recourse, and HR's only option in the post/comments, but I must ask, Where is the leader?

    One comment read, "This guy went to sleep on company time, and you have a policy against it." The implication, of course, is to fire him because he broke the rules. And rules are made to be followed, right? That's why none of us have ever broken one. With that said, let him/her without sin be the first to cast a stone (or, in this case, toss a pink slip) at this man.

    My guess is all who read this post have, at some point (probably recently), stepped outside the rules. Spend any company time on your social network lately? How many of us commented on this post during company time? How about that community/political office we're interested in obtaining or keeping? And we shouldn't forget the attention that our online cash cow needs when you think no one is looking.

    From where I stand, the role of rules is often misinterpreted; they should not exist to penalize infractions; instead, they should serve as guidelines to help leaders lead.

    A great leader will not look at the world through a black and white castigatory lens, leaving the dirty work to their HR cadre; instead, they will take FULL responsibility for helping ALL employees find their strengths and, by extension, discover the Joy of their work through a niche that permits them to make a lasting, productive, and positive contribution.

    Many employees (probably most) feel as though they are held hostage to a system that rewards yes men and women, cronyism, and proximity to the water cooler. They have little or no incentive to do any more than is asked, in large part because they are not appreciated and respected as a person—they feel they are merely looked upon as another pawn (perception IS reality). For example, we pit one employee against another with IDPs that foster unhealthy competition (to increase the company’s bottom line) rather than collegiality—me versus we—in their quest to race up the rusty rungs in the old trusty ladder.

    I can’t help but wonder if the organization that fired this man really has a true leader; if so, it would seem to me the firing would have been unnecessary because a leader would have made it THEIR mission to help this man find a way to make work enjoyable. In lieu of leadership, we tend to resort to common, self-preservation management tactics: blame the man rather than the leadership (or lack thereof), fire him, and use the situation to instill the fear of God in the other workers so their productivity will improve (or at least doesn’t decline). Now that's a team everyone wants to be part of, I'm sure. Right? Didn't think so.

    Let me encourage you to push back on leadership a bit. To not do so makes you no different than the man who was fired; it's the same thing as sleeping on the job.

    In closing, my intention was not to berate; instead, I wanted to shine a light on the bigger problem: leadership, and THEIR responsibility. If they pawn it off, it's high time to give THEM the pink slip.

    I welcome your feedback. Regards,
    Jack King

  31. This poster is a Superintendent in a unionized maintenance shop, not a doctor. It is not the Super's responsibility to diagnose a sleep disorder. It is the Super's responsibility to run a safe, productive maintenance shop. My medical conditions are my responsibility. They only become the responsibility of my boss when I tell my boss I have a problem that may impact on my work (e.g. I am pregnant or I have a diagnosed sleep problem). Then the boss can make reasonable accomodation, like rostering the person on a day shift.

    In my non-medical experience, sleep prolems can be caused by underlying medical conditions (which need to see a doctor) or by external factors such as stress (wife out of a job, money problems etc), in which case he should have talked to his wife, bank and the EAP.

    Maybe there were good reasons why the person was asleep on the job. If so, it was his responsibility to tell the employer, not the other way around.

  32. The poster knows deeply and concretely in his heart that he has missed an important opportunity. Not just to help another! But to be more fully and truly himself.

    The machine shop supervisor is waking in fits and dark nights to his destiny. By his search for answers and compassion in this community, it's clear that he does not realize this could be the start of something wonderful. In his agony of conscience, he may just find… the courage to be. To live brave!

    Regarding the comments, @DrJackKing made an unusual and worthwhile illumination of leadership which I hope some might pause to reflect upon.

    Stan Faryna

  33. I don’t comment, but after reading through some of the responses here Termination Blues — Evil HR Lady.
    I actually do have 2 questions for you if it’s okay. Is it simply me or
    does it look like a few of the responses appear like they are
    left by brain dead folks? 😛 And, if you are writing at other online
    sites, I’d like to keep up with you. Could you make
    a list of every one of your social community
    pages like your linkedin profile, Facebook page or twitter feed?

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