Here’s the quandary: you’ve allowed an employee’s unacceptable behavior to continue long term without serious repercussions. Now what?

You personally like this employee. When she’s at work, she does a good job. Co-workers and customers like her. The problem is her chronic absenteeism or tardiness, for example.

You tried talking with this person months ago, which resulted in a lot of tears that only made you somehow feel guilty for hurting her feelings. She promised to improve, and for a couple of days, she did.

But then it was right back to the old behavior of inexplicably being late by hours (I slept through the alarm; there was traffic; my boyfriend needed the car, etc.). You tried writing her up with significant consequences — all the way up to firing — for repeated transgressions.

But here’s the thing: she knows — and you know — you’re not going to fire her. If you were really tired of her behavior, you would have already fired her. But since you haven’t, she knows your threats are meaningless.

It reminds me of the parents I see who are afraid to discipline their children; they count backwards, as if something magically happens when they reach one! When they reach one, and the child hasn’t stopped what he’s doing, the parents start counting again.

The children recognize right away that mommy and daddy like to count while they are free to do whatever they want with no repercussions. It’s a game with no winners.

When this behavior continues for one year, two years, or even three years, it becomes increasingly difficult to discipline this employee. “What do you mean you have a problem with my tardiness? I’ve been here three years, and you like my work!”

I once assumed management of a team that included a long-term, foul-mouthed, aggressive bully that instilled fear in her co-workers. The first time I tried to discipline her, she reminded me that she had been an employee for 18 years and no one had previously written her up about her coarse language and her intimidating tactics. She interpreted lack of consequences as justification for continuing on the same path.

Besides the inertia of resistance to changed behavior without some external motivators, the other problem you can encounter is the changing job market. When unemployment is high, you have a larger pool of people from which to vet and hire. When unemployment is low, the people you would choose to hire already have jobs. So, are you stuck with this person?

On the one hand, you have an employee that you personally like, your other staff like, and who does good work when she deigns to show up for work. Firing her would leave a void in your workforce because you have no acceptable job applicants.

On the other hand, she is undependable and unexpectedly leaves you shorthanded. You can’t trust her to show up for work, and your other employees see this behavior on her part and no consequences from you.

She sets her own work hours and days, as if she’s self-employed but with the benefit of a steady paycheck. She has the freedom of self-employment without the strictures of accountability.

What to do? You’ve dug yourself deeper into a hole with no easy solution. You can decide that her personality and quality of work is worth her chronic undependability. Or, you can decide that you’ll risk not finding a suitable replacement if you fire her, and that temporary short-handedness is preferable to chronic and unpredictable short handedness.

The choice is yours. Admittedly, it’s going to be painful whichever you choose, but you dug that hole. You don’t have the luxury of complaining about her and feeling resentful and yet take no action.

Either she’s worth it, or she’s not. She is not holding you hostage. So, make a decision and get out of the predicament you created.