Three First Steps for Mitigating Employee Relations Problems

This Week in HR, I am working with several clients on some overlapping Employee Relations issues. One client stands out. This client has been dealing with a problem employee for almost 12 years. The HR Director really wanted to retain the long term employee and so accepted behavior, tardiness, passive aggressiveness, and so on for several years, to the detriment of other employees. Also, this employer didn’t have an updated Handbook nor clear resolution process for complaints from other employees.

First things first, I suggested revamping and republishing the Handbook with the Code of Conduct, even though they did not have new employees. Next, we worked on Job Descriptions, so disciplinary actions and performance expectations could be consistently, tenably applied. And most importantly, we are working on what this company’s employer brand is—their values, their mission, and their vision, to start. Once we had those down, we started applying the values and discerning proper office behavior versus otherwise, disciplining and rewarding accordingly, etc. I also suggested training for managers, because the crude statement that “you-know-what rolls downhill” is simply all too true and fundamentally causal of most problems in the office. Also, once everyone in the office is recalibrated and refocused on best practices, there begins to be a starker contrast between those who want to get behind a better / safer workplace and those who do not, AKA resisters. Resisters feel the burn.

Ultimately, the major perpetrator of the bad behavior submitted their notice, within three short weeks. I consider this a win-win for the client. Is turnover ideal? Never, however, when an employee who is negatively impacting others’ ability to work self-selects out and voluntarily separates from the organization, it is usually a better risk outcome then involuntary separation. What I have found, too, is that when an organization begins articulating its expectations for employee conduct, these kinds of changes are prevalent and bad actors either dig in to change or they leave.

So, what do you do if you have a “bad actor” – someone who may be bullying others or may just have stinky behavior that makes others uncomfortable? Start with the steps we took above. This client wasn’t the best at articulating their expectations to the employee. That’s just a fact of nature, some people will always have trouble with confrontation. And in that case especially, it is imperative to have the other structures in place, such as clarity of Mission, Vision, and Values, Handbook and Conduct policies, complaint structures, whistleblower provisos, and Job Descriptions.

We had someone on our podcast recently, with whom I worked very closely in Legal Tech for many years. She was one of our international attorneys, who flew all over the world to do really technical financial legal analysis. She worked for some of the biggest banks in the world. She rubbed some of the other data analysts wrongly early on in her career with our mutual company and I was asked to address the issue. So, I did. I was a baby in the biz at a whopping 26 years old and she was my senior by about 10 years. It was hard for me to call her into my office and discuss the awkward discomfort that others were feeling, especially since I think it was a bit frivolous. But that’s what I owed to all involved, a safe and congenial working environment. I wanted that desperately, knowing that anything less would have long term performance problems.

So, I said (as always), “I have something uncomfortable to chat about, so here it is…” I didn’t throw others under the bus, in that I was careful to guard names and specifics and I dove in with a brief, nonjudgmental / nonpunitive manner, more inquisitive than anything, and we wound up becoming fast friends, she course-corrected behavior that she suspected could make others uncomfortable and the brilliant attorneys on that project became friends and their work, as ever, was top notch.

Sometimes a frank conversation is the best way to show your employees that you care about them as individuals and participants in your business and that you give the credit to be the very best they can be. And this helps everyone – honest, forthcoming interaction between employees, managers and direct reports, executives and the organization, etc. actually create the ‘open door’ culture you all say you want to create. It’s not just about availability, it’s about concerted communication habits and inclusion of others.


If all else fails, be sure to identify where employees breach conduct standards and document equally and consistently.

ontent here…

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