Generative HSE
Safety beliefs, standards, leadership & performance


Tough love in the workplace

-Jim Neilson

In this article I will tell you why it is important leaders should practise tough love. I’ll relate two stories where tough love was instrumental in changing two lifes for the better.

Let’s start by looking at the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of “tough love”:

“Promotion of a person’s welfare, especially an addict, child, or criminal, by enforcing certain constraints on them, or requiring them to take responsibility for their actions.”

So how is that applicable to the workplace?

Tough love is about setting boundaries (parameters) within which employees are required to perform, and applying consequences to those employees who intentionally choose to work outside those boundaries.

Tough love is not about being demanding or aggressive. In fact, to practise tough love effectively, you need to remain calm and rational.

Tough love is about being truthful with yourself and the individuals concerned:

·       Are the boundaries well defined?

·       Have they been satisfactorily communicated and are they understood?

·       Are the consequences of failing to work inside those boundaries understood?

Tough love is about holding employees accountable for their actions and behaviour. The truth is that unless people accept accountability for their behaviour there will be no change in behaviour.

The bosses at that time would probably argue with me, but in the mid 1980s the industrial policy at Port Kembla Steelworks was one of appeasement: “Don’t rock the boat.” Consequently, supervisors would give what I call the thousand friendly warnings or instructions.

You know the type I mean: “Put your glasses on Joe!... Joe, how many times do I have to tell you to put your glasses on?... Joe, this must be the tenth time this month I’ve told you to put your glasses on!”

What happened as soon as the supervisor’s back was turned? The glasses would come off again.

Because there were no consequences for repeated non-compliance, there was no change in behaviour.

In reality, behaviour deteriorated. As some employees realised there were no consequences for poor or unsafe behaviour, they pushed the boundaries.

When we as supervisors and managers changed our behaviour and started to practise tough love, we brought about a change in our people.

Many leaders are reluctant to set boundaries and provide feedback for fear that their workforce will not like them. Here’s what Colin Powell (American general and statesman) has to say on that subject:

“Trying to get everyone to like you is a sign of mediocrity. You’ll avoid the tough decisions, you’ll avoid confronting the people who need to be confronted, and you’ll avoid offering differential rewards based on differential performance because some people might get upset. Ironically, by procrastinating on the difficult choices, by trying not to get anyone mad, and by treating everyone equally “nicely” regardless of their contributions, you’ll simply ensure that the only people you wind up angering are the most creative and productive people in the organisation.”

A leader’s role is to nurture and develop their people. To do that, you need to challenge them. “Like” doesn’t necessarily come into it, but respect does. Earn your people’s respect:

·       Set clear well-defined boundaries.

·       Ensure the consequences of intentionally working outside the boundaries are well understood.

·       Consequences must be applied for both good and bad behaviour.

The first story I want to tell you on tough love is about an alcoholic I dismissed for attendance-related reasons.

The employee was a shift worker and had a habit of not turning up for work every fourth Wednesday (his second night shift). His wages from the previous fortnight would be in his bank account on Wednesday morning. We had reasons to believe he would go straight to a local hotel after leaving work on the Wednesday morning and subsequently fail to turn up for work that night.

His supervisor recognised the pattern of behaviour, and we began to apply the standard of escalating counselling and disciplinary steps. At each stage in the process, the employee was informed what the next stages would be if he didn’t meet the attendance requirements. The employee denied that alcohol was the problem, refused all offers of help from the companies counselling/employee welfare program and kept promising to turn up for work as required. However, the pattern of behaviour continued until we reached the stage where I terminated his employment.

The day after I dismissed him, a union official came to see me. The first words he said when he walked into my office were, “You’re a murderer.”

His logic was that the employee only had two things he enjoyed in life - alcohol and work - and if I took away the work component the employee would drink himself to death in a fairly short time. 

I informed the union official that I was practising tough love and that if the employee placed himself into rehab, got himself straight, proved to me that he was off the alcohol, and agreed to a period of random testing, I might give him his job back. He needed to make a choice between work and alcohol. He couldn’t have both.

The employee did as requested, and he got his job back. He remained at work clean and a good employee for about five more years when he resigned for health-related reasons. About a year after this employee was reinstated at work, the union official who originally called me a murderer said to me something like, “You know you saved his life, don’t you.”

The second story involving tough love concerns a father and son I had working for me. The father was well known and respected as a good honest worker and had been in the department for many years. The son had only been with us a short time when we began to have a number of performance-related issues with him - compliance with rules and procedures, timekeeping, quality of work etc. We suspected his issues were illicit substance related but had no real evidence to support this, and he, of course, denied this was the case.

Once again, I followed the standard disciplinary path of escalated warnings and suspensions. Ensuring the employee was advised at each stage of the process what the next stage would be if he failed to improve his behaviour to the required standards until we finally reached the stage where I terminated his employment.

His father came to my office to see me about a fortnight before I terminated his son’s employment. He wanted to apologise for his son’s behaviour and his inability to control him. Having that discussion with an employee I liked and respected was one of the hardest I would have in my years as a manager, as I was reasonably certain what the final outcome would be.

About six months after I terminated his son’s employment, the father came to see me again. This time he wanted to thank me for sacking his son. He said I had managed to do something the family had been unsuccessfully trying to do for a long time, and that was to force his son to face up to his drug problem and seek professional help. He said his son had stopped hanging with a bad crowd, that his marriage situation, whilst still shaky, was much improved, and that he had found another job.

The actions of the manager are watched and interpreted by the entire workforce, and they adjust their behaviour according to that interpretation, be it good or bad. Whilst the two stories I’ve told you both involve dismissals, there were many more cases where the knowledge of the boundaries and the understanding of the consequences that would result from continued poor behaviour brought about the required change long before such action was necessary.

The example you set by imposing the penalties you say you will, sends a very clear and powerful message to the rest of the workforce.

Remember, a leader’s role is to nurture and develop their people. To do that you need to challenge them:

·       Set clear, well-defined boundaries.

·       Ensure the consequences of intentionally working outside the boundaries are well understood.

·       Consequences must be applied for both good and bad behaviour.

Practise tough love.


My name is Jim Neilson, and I provide a mentoring service to company managers and frontline leaders. The expertise I provide is based on the learnings I gained from my experiences and safety journey as an Operations Supervisor and Manager at BlueScope Steel’s Port Kembla works.

ArticlesKristy McGrathComment