Context Matters When It Comes to HR Giving Someone a Second Chance

Current NBA Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling got in a heap of trouble recently for making racist statements that were caught on tape.

The NBA is going to kick this guy out of being an NBA owner, and it’s probably about time as he has a history of just being racist. He doesn’t want to stop owning the Clippers, so now he’s trying to do all he can to save what he can, and possibly still hang on to the team and not be forced to sell.

What is an 80-year-old racist NBA owner to do? Well, go on CNN with Anderson Cooper!

Sterling’s one, big stupid mistake

Sterling is doing PR to try to get the public on his side, which is a colossal waste of time, but when you’re a billionaire you do silly stuff. Sterling believes we should all forgive him for making one big, stupid mistake. This is his exact quote from the interview:

Am I entitled to one mistake, am I after 35 years? I mean, I love my league, I love my partners. Am I entitled to one mistake? It’s a terrible mistake, and I’ll never do it again,”

First off, this isn’t Donald Sterling’s first mistake. He has a history of being a bad guy. The “one mistake” argument doesn’t work well for him.

But should it work for anyone? That really is the question for all of this.

Should someone, like one of your employees, get a second chance?

A regular dilemma for HR

In the HR world this is almost a daily dilemma. On one hand you want to say, “Yes! Shouldn’t everyone get a second chance?” But, as HR Pros know, many times, we don’t give employees a second chance.

Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling
Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling

Of course, there are reasons of why you wouldn’t give a second chance. Like the Sterling case, you know of a history of prior bad decisions, coupled with this evidence, and you make the call to say, “Nope! No second chance!”

This is what makes HR tough. I’m not a big believer in the concept of “setting precedent, “which means basically using a previous example to guide a decision. HR people (notice I didn’t say Pro) love to use this concept to make tough decisions, easy.

Well, we fired Jill when she was late three times, so we also have to fire Bill!” No, you don’t! Now, you might have some risk, but unless the cases are completely the same, you’re just trying to take the easy way out!

Maybe Jill was late without excuse. Maybe Bill showed evidence of going to extraordinary lengths to make it to work and just couldn’t. Just because you made one decision one way, doesn’t mean you always have to make it that way. That’s uninformed and naive.

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Context is what REALLY matters

You get yourself in trouble when you start making decisions differently, for similar circumstances, based on things like gender, race, etc. That’s when you get yourself into problems. But if Bill was a much better performer than Jill, should I give him another chance?

That’s the decision I need to make with my business partners. But to go and just say “No we need to fire Bill,” doesn’t make a well-informed partner.

What about true first time, one mistake issues? Does someone “deserve” a second chance?

I tend to believe it’s all based on context. Mess up a major presentation because you didn’t crunch the data correctly and we don’t get the sale. OK, I’ll give you another chance. Forget to turn off the power to a machine when you’re finished, and a co-worker gets badly injured because of it, well, you’re fired.

Second chance decisions are contextual. Donald Sterling didn’t mistakenly become a racist in a conversation once. He should be done forever.

The NBA’s main”employee” is predominately African-American. Sterling’s a racist. I have enough of the context.

This was originally published on Tim Sackett’s blog, The Tim Sackett Project.

Tim Sackett, MS, SPHR is executive vice president of HRU Technical Resources, a contingent staffing firm in Lansing, MI. Tim has 20 years of HR and talent background split evenly between corporate HR gigs among the Fortune 500 and the HR vendor community ? so he gets it from both sides of the desk. A frequent contributor to the talent blog Fistful of Talent, Tim also speaks at many HR conferences and events. Contact him here.

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1 Comment on “Context Matters When It Comes to HR Giving Someone a Second Chance

  1. I couldn’t agree with you more. With every situation being unique and with every person dealing with different triggers and stressors, we shouldn’t be caught in the trap of dealing with every seemingly similar situation the same. Jill is lazy, likes to sleep in because she parties late, and just doesn’t seem to care about work. Bill has a wife in the hospital and is trying to get his kids to school, loves his job and has ambition in the company. Measuring them by the same yardstick is just dumb. You will be better off as a company without Jill, but Bill will be the best employee you’ve ever had and he will be loyal to the core if you try to work with him to help him get through his situation.

    Precedent can be a good way to measure our responses (are we being too hard on this employee, are we treating everyone fairly, etc), but they shouldn’t dictate our current actions. I think the most important thing is to be able to clearly articulate why you made the decision you made. If you can do that in a way that removes personal opinion and the decision still seems reasonable (and legal), you shouldn’t have any problems.

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