My paternal grandparents were Greek immigrants. During WWI, my grandfather was living in a small port village in Asia Minor (now Turkey) with his parents and siblings. When he was seven years old, a “rogue magistrate” decided to round up all the Greeks in the village and kill them. They were taken out to sea by the boatload and slaughtered, then the boat would come back for the next group.

As an old man thinking back, my grandfather would say that he could still picture the sails of the schooner coming to shore for him and his family. They were to be on the last boat out. But when the Boat Captain came ashore, he looked at the group and he decided otherwise. He told them, “I’ve seen enough bloodshed to last 10 lifetimes. I’m going to turn my back and I want you to run. But be quick about it before I change my mind.” My grandfather and his family fled to Constantinople, then immigrated to America.

I told that story to my son’s 5th grade class years ago, to illustrate how one person’s actions can make a difference even decades later, pointing out that if it hadn’t been for that Boat Captain, my son and I wouldn’t be there that day. And when I told my father about the lesson I’d given the class, the Boat Captain analogy came to signify the beginning of our existence.

The phrase “Start with the Boat Captain,” came to mean start at the beginning.

Years later, when my dad was in the hospital shortly before he passed away, the doctor came in and asked him, “Why are you here today?” My dad looked at me with a mischievous smile and said, “Should I start with the Boat Captain?” Not understanding the philosophical humor, the doctor concluded that my dad had lost his marbles.

So what does the Boat Captain have to do with your employment matters? In so many respects, the outcome of employment issues depends not on what happened at the end of the employment relationship, but on what happened at the beginning. Whether it’s an unemployment claim, a harassment complaint, a discrimination charge, a lawsuit – what you did from the beginning of the employment relationship will go a long way in determining the outcome of the issue. Winning starts when you hire that employee, not when you fire him. Winning starts at the beginning. It starts with the Boat Captain.

Winning your claims, charges and lawsuits starts with a good, solid Employee Handbook. You’ve got to have your policies, rules of conduct, and disciplinary procedures set out so your employees know the rules. If you don’t have policies and rules, you’re going to be hard pressed to say that the employee violated something that doesn’t exist. You also need an acknowledgement of receipt of the Handbook so you can show that the employee knew about the rule he violated.

Next, you must enforce your policies. After all, it doesn’t do any good to have rules and policies if you don’t enforce them. This means that if someone violates a rule, you have to address it. Don’t wait until there’s a chronic problem; address infractions as they occur. And make sure you enforce your policies consistently across the board. If not, you may end up with a disparate treatment claim.

Above all, document your counseling sessions. This is so critical that I’ll say it again with an exclamation point: Document your counseling sessions! You need proof that the employee was issued discipline and warned of the consequences of future infractions. Even verbal warnings should be documented. And finally, write the termination report as if your audience is the Texas Workforce Commission or the EEOC. State the reason for termination, reference previous discipline if applicable, and cite the rule or policy violated.

If you do things right from the beginning, you’ll come out a lot better in the end. So to win in employment matters . . . start with the Boat Captain.