The call from Human Resources (HR) caught me off guard. An employee had been passing bad checks and two deputies from the county would be in my office at 1:00pm to arrest her. HR advised me not to share with the staff member about the arrest plan and to have her in my office at the appointed hour.
The call from HR bothered me for several reasons. First, her personal financial issues had not impacted our work; the personalists had to explain to me why it was appropriate that the arrest be made during working hours. Second, 1:00 pm was a terrible choice of times. The hallways would be full of people returning from lunch; I had no doubt that stories of the arrest would be spread throughout the building for the rest of the day. And, I didn’t like that the plan was to have the action completed in my office. I felt that it just too public. I suggested that the deputies meet us in the HR building and they agreed.
I liked the young woman. Her assignment to our team was part of a program to help students earn a pay check and get work experience. Although the program was called “Student Aid” program, everyone knew that I called it the “Student Aide” program. I liked to remind employee and staff alike that the students were there to “aide” us in accomplishing the mission and that we were not providing “aid.” She was a great kid; she worked hard and learned quickly. I hated to learn that she was messing up her ability to keep her job with us and to get future employment.
Mid-morning I told her that she and I had an appointment at the HR building at 1:00; I would drive. She replied that that was great and that she would be at my office at about 12:45. I spent the rest of the morning in my office, keeping a close watch on the clock, feeling a bit like Judas Iscariot.
When she didn’t appear at 12:45 I became worried. Maybe she had gotten word of the plan. I headed out to find her. And, there she was at the copy machine. She told me that she didn’t know how long the meeting would last and she wanted to make sure that she had completed a specific project that was due. She had skipped lunch to get the work done. (I felt HORRIBLE!!)
We got into the car and headed to the HR building. As we entered the conference room where the meeting was to take place, she spied the deputies and everything changed. Apparently, she knew these officers and they knew her. She started yelling and they started coming toward us. I grabbed her elbow, said “let’s complete this outside”, and we were out the door. Her loud (and profane) monologue continued as they handcuffed her and loaded her into the back seat of the vehicle.
As I drove back to my building I was confused. Who was she? Had I misjudged her character? Could (should) I trust her again? As far as work was concerned, she was the best student aide I had ever had. How did the arrest record impact our work relationship?
I got a call from her family later that day. They asked me for a loan so that she could make bail. I was able to reply quickly that loaning money to employees was against the law.
The next day, the employee was back at work. She was in my office as soon as her shift started, embarrassed and apologizing for both the arrest and the call from her family. And, then I spoke.
I told her that today she was part of the Student “Aid” program – I had authority and a responsibility to help her. I was blunt and specific. If she continued to have legal problems, she should expect to have most doors closed to her and if she exhibited poor character (inside or outside work) that any remaining doors would be shut. After discussing other issues, I discussed her work status. I assured her that I had told only my supervisor of the arrest; no one else knew. My intention was to act as if nothing had happened but that I could not forget that she had intentionally misled others by writing bad checks; our relationship was different. She would decide what would happen next.
The experience changed me as a leader. I learned to appreciate that folks have lives outside of work that may or may not reflect well on our team’s values and image. With young staff, I became more intentional in trying to shape their character and to teach them about making good choices. And, I realized that nothing is hidden. There are no secrets.
“Better is a poor man who walks in his integrity than a rich man who is crooked in his ways.” Proverbs 28:6