You're Fired, But I Sure Do Feel Bad For You

By Lisa Earle McLeod

Can you feel sorry for a guy and still fire him?

I think so, because my husband and I just did it. Well, technically he quit. But it wasn’t pretty.

Without recounting all the sordid details, one of my husband’s employees proved himself to be unable to master the fine art of waking up on time. After several warnings and a few too many Mondays of watching our paid-by-the-hour-crew wait around for their I-had-a-big-bender-weekend team member to drag his sorry self into work, my husband took action.

He called Mr. Tardy into his office and, as the unofficial HR manager, I had the dubious pleasure of attending the “big talk.” The young man shuffled in, obviously embarrassed, slumped into the chair and hung his head low beneath his ball cap to avoid making eye contact. When asked why he couldn’t get to work on time, he mumbled something about how he’s always had trouble getting out of bed.

Hubby asked him in a calm, almost fatherly way, I might add,  “Son, how are you going to solve this problem so that you can keep your job?”  Mr. Hangdog responded with a pitiful, “I dunno.” As my husband began outlining the 30-day probation procedure, the young man slid even further into the chair, searching the floor as if he were looking for an escape hatch. Before my husband could even finish, the wayward employee rose and said, “I’ll save you the trouble, man; I’m outta here.”

As he loped out the door, I thought, “Poor guy, what a mess he’s making of his own life.”  I almost cried when I thought about how defeated he seemed, and how he didn’t even realize that he had it within his own power to fix the situation.

My surprise came later in the day when we told the other employees that he had left. When I commented that I felt sorry for the guy, his workmates jumped all over me for expressing empathy for the company slackard. “Why should you feel sorry for him when he brought this on himself?” “If he can’t get to work on time, he deserves to be fired. It wasn’t like you didn’t warn him.”

I was shocked by their venomous reactions. But then I realized that I was experiencing the all-too-familiar human dynamic that makes it hard for us to feel sorry for someone and hold them accountable at the same time.

The human mind is a funny thing. We often have a hard time reconciling seemingly conflicting emotions and, when it comes to people who aren’t measuring up, it usually works one of two ways. We either harden our hearts, deciding it’s their fault and that they should suffer the consequences of their errant behavior, or we make allowances for their personal shortcomings and don’t hold them to the same standards as everyone else.

But expressing empathy and expecting accountability need not be mutually exclusive ideals. I can feel sorry as heck for a guy whose lack of self-discipline cost him his job. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to pay a crew to wait around half the morning while he hits the snooze button.

I’d like to say that I’m always this highly evolved and that I feel true sympathy for anyone whose personal demons cause them pain. However, I’ve noticed that when I see a Reese’s-Pieces-chomping obese person struggling to get their motorized cart close enough to the cake aisle to knock a few tubs of frosting into their basket, my first reaction is more judgmental than sympathetic.

We all have our hot buttons. But just as you don’t do people any favors by being immune to their problems, you don’t help anyone by making excuses for them.

Empathy and accountability. It’s not an either/or proposition.

I just hope I remember that when Mr. Monday Morning Malaise asks for his job back.

Lisa Earle McLeod is a nationally recognized speaker and the author of “Forget Perfect” and “Finding Grace When You Can’t Even Find Clean Underwear.” Contact her or join her interactive blog at .

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