I had to terminate a student working in my lab. The work this student, call her Jane, did was good. When she worked, she worked hard. She was committed to the project, and thought about it carefully. She made contributions. Why did I let her go? She lied on her time card. My problem? At this point, it is not whether I was right to let her go, but when is there enough information about the problem to let someone go. The problem was how long it took me to do this.
My super-tech found problems with Jane's hours and time card about several weeks ago. Tech spoke with Jane and explained the problem. Jane swore it was an honest mistake, and it wouldn't happen again. Tech started keeping informal track of hours Jane was in the lab, and found more discrepancies between time card and hours. Our building has a ID swipe-in system, and we got security to give us the exact time she swiped into the building. Lots more differences between swipes and self-reported time card. Tech and had long walks discussing the problem. Tech and I had many cups of coffee debating what to do. One of the smartest things I did was involve Tech, because she thinks clearly about this kind of issue (not to mention thinks clearly about data and experiments and implications and the lab in general). So on a Thursday about two weeks after first discussion, Tech and I sat down with Jane to discuss issues with Jane's time card. Jane again said "honest mistake". I explained carefully and in some detail that if she was in the lab, with medical supplies, life animals, and critical data, I needed to know that she was absolutely honest about everything. I explained that I needed to trust her on all accounts, and that lying about the little things (like hours worked) made it difficult to trust for the big ones. I next said "what do you think we should do next?", we being me, Jane, Tech. Jane looked at me like "huh?". I prompted again, "what happens now about the hours you didn't work?". Jane said, with this nudging on my part, that she would take the hours in question off of her time card, and she did that afternoon.
I was uneasy. How many chances? How likely is this to be honest error, as opposed to someone gaming the system? What is the value of her work, does an extra 30 min a day matter? Or is honesty about this a binary thing, either you're pregnant or not?
On Friday, after the Thursday talk, Jane said she was going to work on the weekend to make up the hours she had to lose for the hours she had to take off her card. There was certainly enough work to make this valuable. Besides, as Tech pointed out, this gives her a chance to either do it right or do it wrong.
On Monday morning, we saw Jane claimed about 6 hours on Sat and again on Sun. Tech was suspicious because it didn't seem like there was that much work done. So we got the swipe/ time of entry records. Jane had come in 45-75 minutes later than she put on the time card. This baffled me and Tech. We had shown her on Thursday that we were cross-checking her time card with swipe data. Why on earth would someone do this? So Tech suggested, and then insisted that we look at the security videos that our police keep of cars coming & going from the parking lot. I hesitated (more work for more people), but Tech said "more data will be more convincing". This is possible at our small university, and in fact, security didn't mind doing this. The records showed that Jane had been at work for about 1.5 hours each day.
This made it easy on Tuesday to call Jane in and say "pack up your stuff, we are terminating your employment. Right now". In retrospect, we could have terminated her after the first instance and saved ourselves lots of time by. But, I didn't know at that point. Maybe it was an honest mistake. That's the hard part in this. As @ sez: managing people is often the hardest part of being a PI. By the end it was clear that Jane was cheating. Period. I really wanted to ask her: what the heck were you thinking? I didn't. I just said "go".
What astounded me was her response. No apology, no explanation, no reasoning. All she said was "did you think my work was ok, and would you still write me a letter of recommendation that says so?". No remorse. No acknowledgement of wrongdoing. I got a subsequent email that said (and I am quoting here):
I forgot to ask you upon termination if we could discuss the standings of any future employment references regarding the quality of work I did while I worked for you. If you are willing to be a reference for me in the future, I would request that we mutually decide what information could be shared with any potential employers.
Mutually decide? I wrote back:
Jane, I am willing to be a reference, if you wish. But the contents of a letter of reference are not something that is negotiated in advance. I would and will answer all questions about you honestly. Potnia
I have not heard further from her.