A few years ago, I was faced with an odd situation. Lisa, from our loss-prevention team, called me and informed me that they had noticed a difference between the amounts recorded by the till system and money credited on the bank account for one store. The investigation was already pointing at internal staff, most probably the Store Manager (that I will call Mark, fictitious name).
As I took care of the HR side of the investigation, I started to notice a few things. Mark had had a pattern of frequent one-day health-related absences for some time. He had enquired about the possibility to obtain a cash advance from payroll. Still, he had not answered when asked for the reason. One day a member of the store team had called into the office because Mark was late for the store opening.
In previous years Mark had always had excellent performance reviews, and the store itself had been performing well. The last quarter they had missed the targets due to roadworks directly in front of the store that affected traffic.
A few days after Lisa called again. They had evidence that Mark had not deposited one of the cash envelopes at the bank. It was time to act.
The day after I travelled with Lucy, the District Manager, to the store for a surprise visit.
The store had just opened, Mark was behind the till, together with Demir, one of the sales associate. He was evidently not at ease when he saw us. We moved to the office in the back, and showed him the pieces of evidence that we had collected. The immediate reaction is often of denial.
Mark instead erupted into tears. He immediately admitted the wrongdoing and pulled a small post-it note from his pocket, where he had neatly noted down the amounts he had taken. He apologised, mumbling that he hoped he would be able to give the money back.
Deeply shaken, he explained he had been the victim of gambling addiction and had started a recovery program with a local counselling organisation (which excused the absences). He still owed money to several people, something that in the past, he had been able to manage with his wage and bonus, but this had been an issue lately. He wanted to get out from this vicious circle.
I took Lucy to one side and asked her impression. She agreed he seemed to be genuinely in pain. They had been working together for more than 6 years, and she always trusted him. I told her that I had sensed something already during the investigation, and had prepared for different options.
We went back in, and I started talking to Mark. I explained to him that stealing at work is an act that forever damages the trust relationship that underpins employment. We would not have any other option than a termination. He looked at us and said that he understood this fully and was prepared for all the consequences.
However, I continued, we were also prepared to accept the very peculiar situation, and acknowledge the lasting relationship he had built.
I pulled a document from my bag. It was not the standard termination letter for theft that I had also prepared. Rather a termination agreement whereby we would cease the collaboration immediately, but pay him the legal notice period and residual holidays. We deducted the amounts he owed, but this would give still him a few months of financial security, where to concentrate on his rehabilitation. No police involved and no legal consequences, plus the possibility of a reference letter—a critical element to restart his working life when ready.
For the first time in my life, somebody thanked me for being terminated.
In the afternoon, Lucy told me she had never seen so much compassion in action. I was surprised by the remark: we always mention that people come first, having an understanding of the circumstances of a situation is vital to put this principle in practice.
This case came back to mind today when Antoinette Weibel
shared the following post on LinkedIn
Dutton et al., find that compassion is linked to “higher levels of shared positive emotion (e.g., pride and gratefulness)” (Dutton et al. 2006) as well as greater collective commitment and lower turnover rates (Grant et al. 2008, Lilius et al. 2008). Plus a recent article shows its links to organisational learning (Guinot et al 2020).
I find all these elements to be truly relevant. Still, my take is that expressing compassion is not akin to a business task. It is the way to express our humanity. In business, we need to root compassion on strong principles, avoid overdoing it. I find that it is often a sign of tough love as it usually involves taking hard decisions, that need to be read in context. And it’s about expressing our duty of care towards other human beings.
is not keeping people in the organisation indefinitely, or not recognising where there are performance issues. It’s about helping the individual in developing personal resilience and having meaningful systems to set targets and assess results. Ray Dalio
wrote that you have to evaluate accurately, not kindly.
To which I would add that you need to be fair. I had to terminate Mark in that situation, there were no alternatives. But by evaluating the condition accurately, I took the options that I had in my power to use.
As I think of how often some managers behave, I see that this is, however, not a consistent practice. Endless managers are not able to be candid about their team’s underperformance. They are not at ease in undertaking difficult conversations. When things go wrong, they express a lot of kindness, trying to justify misbehaviours with the circumstances. That is not, however, how I see compassion work in an organisational setting.
We need to build this as a critical capability for a genuinely positive Leadership.
I truly think this is a key building block of bringing back Human into HR
. But how do we train our managers and teams to express more of this?