Does Your Leadership Reflect Justice?

Leadership Matters-Len BernatAs the Operations Director for a small county government, I worked closely with our Human Resource (HR) Department on matters of hiring, counseling, and dismissing employees. As you can image, the hiring part was very enjoyable. Counseling can be difficult but I was really good at outlining problems in such a way that the focus was on the success of correcting the problem and not on demeaning the employee. The results were always positive because of this approach and marginal employees quickly became loyal assets. I only had to let go of one employee and he was caught stealing money from the county so the offense and punishment were clearly outlined in the employee manual. But he was not the only employee I was told to dismiss.

A report had come in that one of our custodians was using a county vehicle to operate a trash collection business in the neighboring county and that he was conducting this business during normal business hours when he was supposed to be working in our county. The person making the report had actually seen him that very day operating the business. I was told that the report came from a good friend of one of our elected officials and was very creditable. So, I was to dismiss the custodian that day. When I tried to say that we needed to hear the other side of the story, I was cut off and told, “I said fire him today!”

I arranged to meet with the HR Director and the custodian at the end of the work day. I began by asking him if he was in that area of the neighboring city at the time of the reported incident. He told me he was and apologized for not telling me. He went on to explain.

“Mr. Len, my ex-wife called to say that our youngest child was sick and was running a really high fever. She needed to take him to the doctor immediately. Since she had just moved into the neighborhood, she did not know anyone who could stay with our other children while she went to the doctor. So, she asked if I could come over long enough to watch the other children until she returned. I knew it was during the work hours and I should have let you know but I just felt it was important that I get there as quickly as possible because of my son’s high fever. It was only there a couple of hours and I planned on working through my lunch hours until I made up the time.”

“Tell me what you did when you left to come back to work and please try to include everything you did. Believe me, this is important,” I said.

With a look of bewilderment on his face, he continued, “Well, my wife updated me on what the doctor said, I said bye to the kids, and I left out the back door. Oh yeah, I noticed she had a bag of trash on the back porch so I grabbed it and threw it in the back of my truck to get rid of it for her.”

“And, you were in your county truck?” He nodded that he was.

So, I am faced with a dilemma. I have been told in no uncertain terms to fire this individual but I was asking myself, would that be justice?

[bctt tweet=”Justice is defined as the practice of being fair and consistent. ” username=”bizmastersglobal”]

To enact justice, you must give consideration to each side of a situation and base rewards or punishment on merit.

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  • Be honest with yourself about why you are making a particular decision. Carefully weigh the evidence you are considering, the gravity of the infraction, the facts as presented by all sides of the argument, past performance history, and any other professional or job related factors. Justice can only be achieved when your final decision can be defended in light of all the evidence. So, never allow personal feeling to cloud your decision.
  • Avoid favoritism. I usually encountered this when an employee would complain that they were counseled or written up for being late but another employee was consistently arriving late and nothing was ever said. Proving this was really easy and in most cases, the employee was correct. So, if you are leading, you must enforce all rules equally.
  • Try to be fair at all times. If there is any doubt in your mind as to the veracity of a complaint, error on the side of justice and do what is right. This means you will have to learn to listen to the “gut” feeling that says that a story, a complaint, an accusation, is not following a logical pattern to conclusion (or, as we used to say, does not pass the sniff test).
  • Treat all things and people in an equal manner. This goes along with what I said when discussing the fact that you must avoid favoritism. To be an exceptional leader, you must enforce all the rules in the same manner in every circumstance and with every person.[/message][su_spacer]

So, have you through about what you would do to ensure justice in the opening story? Let me outline the actions I took that I felt handled this situation in the most appropriate manner.

A little more probing revealed that the person who made the accusation lived next door to his ex-wife and he was constantly complaining that the children were too loud when they played outside. It made it hard for him to watch his television. My employee and the neighbor had exchanged angry words concerning him yelling at the children just a few days earlier. Therefore, it became clear that the complaint was not true and was made for the sole purpose of damaging my employee’s professional standing with the county. So, here was what I did.

I made it very clear to him that he had an absolute obligation to let us know when he had to take off in the middle of the day for a personal matter and that his failure to do this had placed himself in jeopardy of losing his job because of the neighbor’s false accusation. I emphasized that I was not upset that he needed time to take care of his children; I truly respected him for that. However, I stressed that he shown poor judgment in that he did not advise anyone of the emergency and that it was because of the lack of judgment he had displayed that I would have to take corrective action. I then let him know that I was suspending him for one day without pay to give him time to consider the gravity of the matter and to reflect on what his action should be if this happens again in the future.

When the custodian left he thanked me for being fair and not firing him. Of course, once he left my office, the Human Resource Director reminded me that I was now in trouble because I was ordered to fire him. I asked her a very simple question. “Would you have fired him once you uncovered all the facts?”

The person who ordered me to fire him was furious with me and demanded I call the custodian back in and fire him. I let him know we did not have grounds to fire him and that my handling of the situation would stand up to any court in the land. He begrudgingly relented when he saw the HR Director nod her head in agreement.

Do you want to be an exceptional leader? Then be guided by justice when dealing with your people.


Len Bernat
Len Bernat
LEN is a leader groomed by 20 years of molding and shaping by some of the finest leaders in the United States Marine Corps. Their guidance helped Len realize his full potential as he moved from an enlisted Marine to becoming an Officer of Marines. Len became known for being the leader who could turn any lackluster organization into a strong, functional unit. Upon his retirement, Len worked in several positions before finally starting a second career in governmental procurement. His experience and leadership skills enabled him to be recognized as the 2011 Governmental Procurement Officer of the Year for the Governmental Procurement Association of Georgia and opened doors for him to teach at many of the association’s conferences. Len was also called to the ministry and was ordained at Ashford Memorial Methodist Church in November of 1999. Today, Len is the Pastor of Maxeys Christian Church in Maxeys, Georgia. Len has been married to his wife, Hazel, for 36 years and they have three daughters, three grandchildren, and three great-grandchildren. Grab your copy of Len's new Book – Leadership Matters | Advice From A Career USMC Officer. Using his life experiences as examples, Len takes the eleven principles of leadership and the fourteen traits every leader should possess—which he learned during twenty years in the Marine Corps—and teaches the reader how he was molded and shaped by some of the best leaders the Corps had to offer.

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  1. Thank you Len, for a thought provoking post. Justice – is “the maintenance or administration of what is just especially by the impartial adjustment of conflicting claims or the assignment of merited rewards or punishments”. I admire you for your kind consideration and just administration of what is fair.

    Especially when we live in a very multi-cultural society, there is absolutely no room for ambiguity in people’s assessment of us as a manager who treats people with fairness. Treating people with respect and dealing with everyone in a fair and open matter are just two essential requirements for success as a manager.

    The credibility factor is vital to our success as a leader. There is nothing that can destroy our credibility faster than the reputation that we play favorites or deal with people on an inconsistent and perhaps hasty or unfair basis. As leaders we have to be deliberate and careful about how we assign work, offer praise and share feedback. The benefits of cultivating a reputation as a leader who deals with people in a fair manner are priceless. Len, your personal example is a testimony to this.

    • Jonathan – Thank you for your insightful comments and for your kind words. I have been in trouble more times than I can recount for standing on the side of right when it comes to caring for my people. But I know that I just could not live with myself if I took the easy road for myself and allowed anyone of my people to be treated without the dignity or respect they deserve. So, I will always be lead by a strong sense of justice – I will error on the side of my people – I will do what is right – and tomorrow when I look in the mirror, I will like the person looking back at me.

  2. Len, I have many years of work experience under my belt and can tell you that rarely have I ever seen a manager come to the defense of their employee. Nobody does that. You putting your own job on the line in defense of what was right, speaks volumes both of your character and your sense of justice. Bravo and kudos to you. I hope that I would have the intelligence and courage to do the same thing.

    • Jane,
      You are being far too kind. The first Sergeant I worked for in the Marine Corps told me to complete a task incorrectly. I did exactly what he told to me to do and when a more senior NCO found out, he berated me publicly. The Sergeant quickly came over to my desk and let the Master Sergeant know that I was doing exactly what he had told me to do. He could have kept quiet and I would have taken the humiliation but he did what was right. I learned so much from that incident with respect to doing the right thing for your people. He set the tone for my leadership – he demonstrated how to do what was right – he taught by his example that sticking your neck out to protect your folks is sometimes necessary to protect them from folks who react instead of act with logic. I am friends with him to this very day and I thank him often for the impression he made in my life. The stories I share in the articles I write reflect what he and other wonderful mentors taught me by demonstrating how a true leader leads so that people follow. So, if I take a hit because I stood up for my people when they deserved my protection, it has been and always will be worth it to honor those who cared enough show me the way. Thanks for your kind words.

    • Actually, I’m not being kind. I’m being honest. But I’m glad it comes through as kindness. I never regret being kind.