When an Employee Lies . . .

Should he automatically be fired?

Q: I caught one of my supervisors in a lie. He told me that some orders were shipped before they actually went out. He said he didn't know about it, but the shipping clerk said that she was told it was OK to do it. I am confident that he lied because he was going to miss his monthly production quota if they had not been credited in the prior month. Should I fire him?

A: There are at least two issues involved in your question. The first is the issue of lying. In my opinion, based on the information in your question, I think you should fire the supervisor. Lying, as with cheating and stealing, is very difficult behavior to change. The problem is that once you catch someone in a lie, it changes your view of all future interactions. Even when the person tells you the truth, you may be suspicious and will be unable to respond appropriately. It is better to help the person find another job where he will be able to change his behavior without prejudice.

In our company, lying, cheating and stealing are terminable offenses. Although these behaviors can be changed, it is very difficult to do so. If someone has cheated you in the past, his altruistic behavior in the present may go unrewarded because you are suspicious of its nature or origin. All the behavioral research shows that when punishment does not occur immediately, it is inefficient and ineffective as a way to change behavior. While positively reinforcing a productive, constructive or moral alternative is the best way to deal with any negative behavior, this is difficult to do because of the perceptive bias created by the undesirable behavior.

I would not want you to get the impression that if these things occur within your family that you "fire" your children or spouse. In the family, you have closer observation of behavior and many more opportunities to determine when desirable or undesirable behavior has occurred. Undesirable behavior can also be corrected at work, but it is an extremely long and difficult process that requires close and continuous supervision. If you cannot afford such, termination is the best thing for the employee and the organization.

Next Step
Need to fire a problem employee? Make sure your termination process is both tactful and legal.

If you lack an in-house HR manager, check out The Hiring and Firing Question and Answer Book by Paul Falcone, which provides real-world solutions to sticky personnel problems.

The second issue relates to your management behavior. It appears, at least on the surface, that you have a negative reinforcement management style. Your manager was apparently so afraid of missing a performance goal that he lied. While this is certainly no excuse for lying, it should be a wake-up call for you about how you manage.

Even though negative reinforcement is by far the most common way to manage in this country, one of the many negative side effects is that it can cause lying, cheating and stealing. If keeping one's job, status or reputation is dependent on attaining a particular goal, you can be sure that there are many people who will "attain" the goal at any cost.

Use goals as a way to define success instead of how they are more commonly used, which is to define failure. Set sub-goals every day, if possible, and positively reinforce performers when these sub-goals are accomplished. In my opinion, it is almost impossible to set goals that are too small. Small goals provide many opportunities to reinforce improvement. Of course, reaching final goals should be the occasion for celebration. One final thought: If an employee consistently fails to meet goals under this arrangement, you have a situation in which the cost of changing the behavior is probably more costly than hiring a replacement.

Aubrey C. Daniels, Ph.D., founder and CEO of management consulting firm Aubrey Daniels & Associates (ADA), is an internationally recognized author, speaker and expert on management and human performance issues. For more about ADA's seminars and consulting services or to order Aubrey's book Bringing Out the Best in People: How To Apply The Astonishing Power of Positive Reinforcement, visit www.aubreydaniels.com, or contact Laura Lee Glass at (800) 223-6191 or lglass@aubreydaniels.com.


The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.