Guest Post: Ask Wise Questions Before Terminating An Employee

Lessons From a Hotel Lobby

We think we shape life. That’s wrong. Life shapes us. All
readers know how they first learned this. Here’s my story,
one that will help corporate counsel when it comes to decid-
ing whether to impose the equivalent of capital punishment in
employment: termination.

It was 1975. Much to my mother’s dismay, I dropped out of
college, moved to Washington, D.C., and started to work at a
large, 800-room convention hotel as a desk clerk. Working hard,
I was promoted to chief clerk (hot stuff).

D.C. was a mosaic of cultures. The bell staff was mostly Ara-
bic; when it was slow, they taught me salty language in their
native language. Jean-Paul Sartre wrote that words are like
loaded guns. I was about to find out how right he was.

It was Sunday night. The hotel was busy earlier and finally
had slowed down. It was around 11 p.m., and I got off at mid-
night. Suddenly, several guests came in, crowding around the
front desk. A gentleman from Dubuque, Iowa, was at the line’s
head, surrounded by his large family, all blocking my view of
line’s end.

As I checked them in, I handed the keys to a bellman,
Manny. He was from Jordan. I needled Manny by using my
new vocabulary to call him a pig in Arabic, which is one of the
worst words to say to an Arab.

As the family cleared away, my view finally unobstructed, I
saw three Arab gentlemen whose reservations were made by
the Lebanese embassy around the corner from the hotel. Oh
geez! Had they heard? Was I toast? Could I bribe them into
silence with an upgrade to a suite? They let on nothing. It was
a restless night.

Next shift, I came in but was told to see the assistant man-
ager before starting work. He was Lebanese. Coming into his
office, he swept his hand toward his guest chair, and I saw
spread out across his desk my personnel file, including many
complimentary letters from satisfied guests. (When anyone ever
thanked me for my assistance, I asked them to write a letter to
the hotel extolling my virtues.)

I sat. He looked at me evenly and quietly said, “Mike, I am
not going to fire you. Not now, at least. You have many good
letters. Read my memo later today. Read it, live it.”

Relieved, I went to work, focused on the Zen of checking in
guests. The memo came out:

To: Front desk staff
Re: Swearing in Arabic
Henceforth, only I will be allowed to swear in Arabic
at the front desk. Any staff violating this rule will
be terminated.

Close call. Years later, I am an employment lawyer, and I
have never forgotten what that boss taught me. I like to think
of it as principled compassion (PC). What happened to me
was one aspect of it.

Time To Reflect
PC is best understood in a Q-and-A format. Here’s a key
one: Are there any mitigating factors warranting a less severe
punishment than termination? That’s the one that saved me,
but it has various cousins, all looking to whether capital pun-
ishment is warranted. Here are others:

• What is a proportionate response to the misconduct in
question?
• Is the company focusing on just one person as the cul-
prit or should others be held accountable? Be wary of this,
because the fundamental attribution bias bends our minds to
embrace a single cause for a mishap, when in fact there are
usually several.
• Has the straying employee been properly trained for the
position?
• Were checks and balances in place to prevent the mis-
deed? Trust me, a jury will often blame the employer for not
putting these in place, on the belief that employers should
take steps to ensure that the darker angels of an employee’s
nature are cabined off.
• Is the company giving too much weight to information
that comes in first (the availability bias) and then holding fas
to its first conclusions (the confirmation bias)? Recognize
these when making decisions.
• Are there other alternatives that can achieve the com-
pany’s objectives, short of termination?

PC must not be confused with the ancient human resourc-
es maxim of “no good deed goes unpunished.” By asking
these questions, an employer arrives at the right decision.
Deciding that someone should be terminated and lacking
the backbone to do it is not performing a good deed. It is a
bad decision, often borne of a desire to avoid confrontation.
PC results in a deed that is truly good for the manager and
the employee.

How so? Let’s look at managers first. In his recent book,
“What the Gospels Meant,” Garry Wills argues that most
people incorrectly interpret one of the Beatitudes in the
Gospel of Matthew. Instead of “Happy those who are meek,
for they shall acquire the earth,” it should be “Happy those
who yield, for they shall acquire the earth.”

Wills’ big idea: Those who could be aggressive or careless
with their exercise of power but hold back and reflect before
acting are those who shall reap rewards. For employees? I
became, I think, a better employee and, I know for certain,
a more loyal one — good all around.

I went on to graduate from the Cornell University School
of Hotel Administration; graduating in the half of the class
that makes the top half possible confirmed that my skill set
was elsewhere. I lost touch with the assistant manager but
never lost touch with his lesson. I use it to this day, which
brings me to asking readers for a favor. Take a minute to
recall your lessons learned, who did the teaching and why
the lessons are important. Then take the next step: Pass
them on. A little karma can do a lot of good.

About the Author:
Michael P. Maslanka
is the managing partner of Ford & Harrison
in Dallas. His e-mail address is mmaslanka@fordharrison.com.
He is board certified in labor and employment law by the Texas
Board of Legal Specialization. He writes the Texas Employment Law Letter. 

This article is reprinted with permission from the June 2, 2008 issue of In-House Texas. © 2008, Texas Lawyer.