Interactive Case Study

Issue: A Good Employee Turns Scratchy


Beth Waggoner* watched in amazement as a promising employee she had promoted performed so poorly it put an entire organization in danger of sinking. An accountant who loves animals, Waggoner was serving (pro bono) as president of the board of directors for Paws Need Families, a no-kill nonprofit cat shelter outside Philadelphia.

The shelter's mission was to house and give veterinary care to abused and neglected cats until a suitable adoptive home could be found. When the existing shelter manager quit, Waggoner and the rest of the board considered Della a perfect choice for the job. "Della started as a cleaner, then was made assistant manager," Waggoner says. "She did well and was enthusiastic about the job and great with the public. And we liked the idea of showing the employees that there was upward mobility, so we promoted her to manager."

Like many animal shelters, Paws Need Families found itself perpetually short of funds, so it was not without careful deliberation that the board bumped up Della's salary some 20%. A single mother of two small children, Della was grateful for the raise.

Soon after the promotion, Della began having personal problems that spilled over to the office, including financial ones. "We ended up lending her money and letting her pay it back little by little from her salary."

Della also started arriving to work late, a serious offense since only she had the key to the shelter, and sometimes other employers would have to stand outside in the cold before she arrived—not to mention the inconvenience to public stopping by to inquire about adopting pets. To avoid pointing the finger at Della, Waggoner and the board held a meeting at which they reminded everyone to be on time. The next day Della showed up for work half an hour late.

"She just seemed overwhelmed by the job when she became manager," Waggoner says. When the assistant manager job became open, the board hired someone with pronounced organizational skills to compensate for Della's dissolute habits. The assistant manager, Gwen, was efficient and responsible, but it could only mitigate Della's performance so much.

"Gwen came to us to let us know computer records showed some of the cats were five months behind on inoculations," says Waggoner. "That's a disaster, because if one cat gets sick, it can spread fast to others."

Soon Waggoner discovered more bad news. "There were adoption applications sitting on Della's desk that were weeks old. The whole reason we exist is to find homes for cats. Things just couldn't go on," Waggoner says.

That week, the board terminated Della's employment.

Waggoner wonders if they could have done anything earlier to help Della manage the responsibilities of her job. And was it fair to terminate someone who clearly needed an income desperately? Or was the board only enabling Della to behave more irresponsibly?

* This case scenario is true. Names and some identifying details have been changed.
Rebecca_reisner
Rebecca Reisner is an editor at Businessweek.com

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