Supervising a Problem Employee: An Employee Relations Case Study
SCENARIO: John Jones is a long-term employee of the Lackawanna Police Department. During his first ten years on the force, John was enthusiastic about his job and was promoted quickly. Within the last year, however, John's performance has deteriorated. He is constantly agitated and is frequently late for work in the morning. His paperwork has gotten shoddy and he often turns in reports well past their due date. John's immediate supervisor, Betty Brown wants to salvage her employee, John. She has known him for many years and she feels that something must be seriously wrong and it is directly affecting his employment with the Lackawanna Police Department.
Unfortunately, situations like John's are all too common in today's workforce. As employers continue to use more human resources generalists and fewer specialists in the human resource function, there is a good possibility that organizations will de-emphasize or devalue the importance of employee relations. (Aminuddin, 1998) Simply put, if an organization ignores its role as employee advocate, there will be a rise in the number of employee relations issues. These problems can sometimes prove to be costly, time consuming and create unnecessary job dissatisfaction and stress for employees.
Before we take a closer look at John's issues, I wanted to take a moment to clarify employee relations. Some managers think that employee rewards programs (like employee of the month) are the groundwork of their employee relations program. Although these programs are somewhat effective, they are not the basis of employee relations. "Effective employee relations takes time, talent and effort to build. The essence of employee relations is an ongoing, relationship-building process." (Szwajkowski et al., 1999)
So why is the concept of employee relations difficult for so many managers to grasp? I think this is because we all know what employees are, but relationships in employment are vague and mean different things for different people. According to David Weiss in his book High Performance HR "some ingredients that are involved in employee relations are communication, trust, ethics, morals, fairness, feelings, beliefs, expectations, conflict resolution, career counseling, career development, leadership and many other intangibles." (Weiss, 2000)
In our fast-paced society that is so focused on tangibles, keeping companies focused on intangibles that comprise employee relations is much harder to achieve. Employment relationships are in a constant state of change, partially due to evolving business needs as well as laws and regulations that impact this relationship. (Shilling, 2002) The current trend is that managers are becoming more focused on the "bottom line" which is very discernible and a lot easier to manage and measure than employee relationships.
One major reason that employees file lawsuits or claims against their employers stems from the fact that they do not believe they have an advocate in management. (Shilling) Current thinking of most human resource professionals is that human resources should be an advocate for employees and a partner to business. Obviously, this is a difficult role at best, but a necessary role. Human resources must be involved in assisting operations to achieve their goals. Human resources must also serve as a legitimate employee advocate. But, what is a legitimate employee advocate? According to a recent article in HR Magazine an advocate "(is) someone who is interested in and works for fair treatment of employees, is committed to resolving employee issues, is interested in employee morale and tries to improve it regularly, believes that employees should be treated with respect and dignity and works toward that end." (Wilensky et al., 1994)
Another major reason that employees file lawsuits is that companies and managers tend to de-humanize the workforce. Managers consider the tools, materials and people they work with simply as resources. But according to the article "Building Harmonious Employee Relationships" To label a person as a "human resource" seems to classify people with other resources needed to achieve organizational goals. If management's mind-set is to think of employees as "resources" rather than as individuals, they will likely become desensitized to employee feelings and thereby compromise positive employee relationships. (Aminuddin) In other words, if people are seen as and treated as a means to an end, many major employee issues can result.
Unfortunately, in many organizations employees do not believe that they have an advocate in management. Current thinking of most human resource professionals is that "human resources should be an advocate for employees and a partner to business." (Ackerman, 2000) Clearly, this is a difficult role at best, albeit a necessary one. It is essential that human resources be involved in aiding employees in achieving their goals. Human resources must also serve as a legitimate employee advocate. "A legitimate employee advocate is someone who is interested in and works for fair treatment of employees..." (Gill, 1999)
Keeping all of this in mind, if I were counseling Betty Brown about what to do with John Jones, I would first recommend that she sit down with him and discuss her concerns in detail i.e. his lateness, failure to complete work on time, etc. In doing this it is key that Betty discusses only facts and does not interject her opinions into the conversation i.e. "You've been late every day this month." not "You've gotten lazy and you're not showing up on time." The first statement sticks to the facts -- the second is subjective and may only serve to upset John and keep him from opening up to Betty. It is important that during the communication session that Betty gives John an opportunity to speak. She should also let him know that she is interested in helping him, not in getting rid him.
The following steps are recommended for Betty Brown to follow:
Communicate with John regularly -- Ongoing two-way communication is the most important component in employee relations. A positive relationship is the desired outcome.
Build an environment of trust -- If John does not trust Betty, the flow of upward communication (feedback) will be compromised. Conversely, if Betty does not trust John, the downward flow of communication will be affected.
Maintain and make clear your ethical standards to John -- If John does not support or does not understand Betty's ethics as a manager, he might indirectly question her motives.
Be fair -- Betty should remain fair and consistent throughout the process. The process should never be punitive. No favoritism should be shown.
Share her thoughts and feelings -- Betty needs to be sensitive to John's feelings. Acknowledgment and concern about John's feelings about work and/or personal issues are an important part of establishing a relationship.
Understand the link between perceptions and beliefs -- In employee relations perceptions are more important than reality. John will act on what he perceives or believes to be true, regardless of if it actually is. It is important that John be well informed and told the truth, even when it may be uncomfortable for Betty. John's beliefs, whether true or not, and his uncertainties will affect his performance on the job. Good communication will insure that John's beliefs are based in reality.
Manage John's expectations -- John needs to know what to expect from Betty. Knowing what Betty expects of him will greatly reduce John's stress level.
Become an expert in conflict resolution -- Conflicts arise in all companies, no matter how well run. It is critical that conflicts are managed prior to them becoming catastrophic.
Offer John career counseling and development services -- By offering John (and other employees) career counseling and career development services, Betty will convey to him that the company cares about him, his career and his future.
What might happen if Betty does not communicate with John about his performance and things continue as they currently stand? Many things -- but none of them are desired. They include:
John filing a grievance with the union
Excessive absenteeism -- John's absenteeism would increase the cost of doing business through employee benefits, replacement workers, training and loss of performance.
Employee Turnover -- John might quit his position with the Lackawanna Police Department. Employee turnover is very expensive and usually costs a company 50-100% of an individuals annual salary through recruiting, training and loss of performance. (Wilensky et al.)
Litigation -- John might file a lawsuit against the company and defending against litigation for allegations of wrongful employment actions is expensive and could also result in criminal and civil penalties. Betty should take this seriously. In many situations, Betty could be found individually responsible and held accountable in a criminal or civil action.
Some of the suggestions made to Betty are low to no cost -- but some services like an EAP or outplacement services range in price from the negligible to the offensive. So what is the cost of an effective employee relations program? It varies, but it is possible to design a program that works without spending gobs of cash. And in the end, any money Betty invests in…