CategoryProgressive Discipline

HR Rock, Paper, Scissors … SHOOT!!

I came across an interesting employee relations issue a few months ago. Here’s a quick summary of what happened …

A White female employee made a complaint about her Hispanic male supervisor, claiming he was treating her unfairly and was generally derelict in his duties as a manager. HR investigated the issue but we were unable to substantiate the claim. The supervisor was issued a basic warning, everyone was sent back to work and the supervisor’s supervisor (a Black female over 40 years old) was instructed to keep an eye on both parties.

Within 2 weeks, another complaint was lodged. The Black female over 40 years old called the White female to get the details of the latest complaint against the Hispanic male. A confrontation ensued where the White female used inappropriate and profane language in speaking with the Black female over 40 years old. The White female was suspended pending investigation into the confrontation. A few days later, she was terminated for initiating and escalating the conflict. She later filed claim with the EEOC claiming the Black female over 40 years old terminated lured her into conflict and conspired with HR to terminate her in retaliation for her complaint against the Hispanic male.

Handling employee issues like these often feels like a bad game of Rock – Paper – Scissors …

  • Female covers Male
  • Minority covers White
  • Old covers Young


Most guidance on employee relations teaches us to consider protected class status in our recommendations and decisions on discipline. Right or wrong, we cannot ignore it and honestly claim to be protecting our organizations from separation litigation risk. Adverse action and adverse impact are still very much a real and legitimate problem — and government agencies are still on the lookout for it. We have a responsibility to be both mindful of and able to account for decisions we make that may seem discriminatory.

However, as our workplaces continue to become more diverse, it is rare to encounter an issue where more than one protected class of people isn’t represented. In the example above, there is race, gender and age all in the mix — and I forgot to mention the Hispanic male is also a devout Christian and the Black female over 40 years old is also homosexual. I think that covers just about everything but genetic information!

So what is a HR person to do when everyone in the employee conflict is covered by protected class status?

The answer is the simple:

Consider the policy, past practice and precedents — then do what is in the best interest of the reputation and goals of your organization

 To do this, we have to focus on the facts … In our story, the facts are that an employee complained about a supervisor, the investigation was unable to substantiate a violation, appropriate warnings were issued and the employee was later terminated for flagrant insubordination toward a member of management in the process of filing another complaint. With some legal guidance, there is no reason the company cannot successfully defend this decisions.

Don’t get caught in the losing game of HR Rock – Paper – Scissors. When employee conflicts decisions start to look confusing and difficult, that’s the time for HR to keep it simple and be decisive. It is not the time for games.

“The Choice is Clear” — A Lesson in Conflict Resolution

It’s never easy for a manager to resolve conflict between employees. And we are often the most unprepared for handling it when we start out. Many managers never gain the skills needed to successfully manage and resolve conflict.

Mike was one of those managers.

Two of his employees, Kim and Tina, just could not seem to get along. It wasn’t a big deal when they were just co-workers in the same department — but it became a huge problem when Kim got promoted and became Tina’s boss … Within a month, Tina was in Mike’s office to complain about Kim and request a transfer to an area outside of Kim’s supervision and influence.

And, of course, Mike came to my office for advice and guidance.

Did Kim violate a policy as it relates to her supervision of Tina?

No, Kim hasn’t done anything in violation of policy. It’s more that Tina doesn’t like her and isn’t responding to her management style

How’s Tina’s performance level?

Tina is just OK. She’s not top of the group, but she’s not the bottom.

Are you in favor of moving her to another area?

I don’t really have another place to put her. And Kim’s still learning the other areas so I can’t move her. At least not right now. I have 3 other people that have put in to be moved when an opening comes.

I gave him a blank stare.

I know this sounds silly to you. But it’s hard for me. I don’t want to choose!

It’s too late for that. You’ve already made your choice.

When an organization promotes someone into management, they agree to have that person’s back. The organization is saying they trust this person’s decision-making and behavior to represent and lookout for the company’s interests. And barring a violation of this trust, the organization agrees to support this person’s choices.

Mike chose Kim when he promoted her over Tina. Since Kim had not violated any company policy, we had no cause to discipline her. Tina’s request for transfer was duly noted but we would not process it at that time because there was no opening — and we weren’t going to push a transfer through for a mediocre performer just because she didn’t like her supervisor. The real world of work doesn’t operate that way. Tina’s request for transfer would eventually be processed alongside all other requests according to procedure.

When I shared this story with some of my HR friends, they gasped and criticized me. They said the decision not to move Tina was leaving the company at risk … Perhaps they’re right. However, I believe HR is responsible to mitigate risk not eliminate it. There will always be risk. No matter how good the leadership and HR is at what they do, risk will never go away.

When issues are brought to our attention, HR has a duty is to investigate, determine if a violation of policy has occurred and correct the problem. We are not fairy godmothers, pixies or genies here to make every employee want, whim and wish come true. If the investigation finds no violation, there is no problem to correct and no additional action to be taken. Conducting a complete, thorough investigation which exonerates the person accused of wrong-doing is the best and correct answer.

The choice is clear.



Save Your Memo. Deal With The Problem

The manager of the assembly department came into my office. “I need your help to write a memo,” he said.

Ok. What’s this memo about?

“I want to remind everyone that they only get two 15-minute breaks during their shift and that they need to clock out if they are going to take longer than that or if they need more than just the two breaks.”

Well, that’s pretty much the same thing our Handbook says in the policy on lunch and breaks. Why do you feel you need to write a memo?

“The smokers are getting out of control! They are taking breaks every hour almost to go outside to smoke. I’ve gotta do something about it!”

How many people are going outside to smoke every hour?

“It’s mainly 3 people.”

Have you talked to them about it to let them know it is a problem?

“No. I was going to do that after I gave everyone the memo if the memo didn’t fix it.”

Um. I don’t think a memo is the best course of action here …

I don’t like blanket “reminder memos” to employees about policies. As far as I am concerned, the copy of the Handbook and other manuals issued are the only reminders needed — unless there is a policy update or some other change.

“Reminder memos” usually mean a few employees are breaking rules and the manager wants them to stop — but is too chicken to address the problem directly so they send a “reminder memo” instead.

Listen up: Your “reminder memo” isn’t fooling anyone — it is only making you look foolish! The other employees know who and what the “reminder memo” is really about — and they are talking bad about you for sending a memo instead of dealing with the issue. And the employees who are breaking the rules are ignoring your memo — or they’re crafting new, improved ways to break the rules. Maybe both.

Instead of writing a blanket “reminder memo”, you should pull the problem employee(s) aside privately to remind them of the policy and to tell them that their actions are in violation. Let them know the behaviors expected for improvement and the timeframe required to comply with this change. Then give them a personal memo documenting the conversation for them to sign and place a copy in their employee file. Repeat this process if the behavior doesn’t change. After 2 or 3 repetitions, you may have to wish the person well in their future endeavors and end the employment relationship. But hopefully, it won’t come to that.

That’s how you address bad employee behavior. Save your “reminder” memo. Deal with the problem.

The N-Word

It’s Black History Month! And I’m continuing to share thoughts on race and diversity in the workplace. In this post, I’m diving into the grand-daddy of all racially charged words — the N-word.

The modern version of the word seems to have originated during the 1600s, when American colonists used “negar” to describe the African slaves brought to the Virginia colonies. The word spiraled from there to be the extremely inflammatory word it is today.

And, because of that, there is nothing I hate more than having to deal with the use of the N-word in the workplace. What’s worse is how many Black people I deal with who defend their right to use it.

Which brings me to the tale of Mr. Black and Mr. White …

Mr. White was Black. He’d been an employee for a little less than a year when Mr. Black (who was White) became the manager of his department. Well, Mr. White was friends with Mr. Brown (who was also Black) and they regularly used the N-word as a term of endearment to refer to themselves and other people.

Mr. Black didn’t like it. He thought it was inappropriate for the workplace. And he told Mr. White and Mr. Brown to cut it out. They didn’t listen to him. They defended their right to use the word as Black people and ignored Mr. Black’s instructions.

One day, during one of Mr. White and Brown’s N-word riddled conversations, Mr. Black jumped in and started using the N-word himself. An argument ensued which turned physical. Mr White and Mr Black were terminated.

But what happened next still baffles me to this day.

Both men filed for unemployment benefits, alleging they were terminated wrongfully.

Mr. White was awarded benefits while Mr. Black was denied.

Apparently, Mr. White’s argument that he was using the N-word as a term of endearment and not in an inflammatory way made sense. And Mr. Black’s choice to use the N-word to demonstrate why it’s not OK to use the N-word at work did not fly. And our argument that the N-word is inflammatory enough that it should not ever be used regardless of the intention was only half right.

Et tu, State Commission?!?!

Mr. White and Mr. Black suddenly made use of the N-word at work very … grey!

I don’t want to debate the N-word and it’s use in every day life and/or pop-culture. If you choose to use it as a term of endearment in your life to refer to your friends and loved ones, that is your choice. I disagree with you, but that is your choice.

At work, however, it’s never appropriate. That’s right — NEVER!! The history and pejorative nature of the N-word makes it off-limits. There cannot be words that are OK for some people but not OK for others in a place where everyone is supposed to be held to the same standard. Period. And the same rules apply to the B-word and F-word (not to be confused with the F-bomb, which I confess is one of my favorite words). There is no place for it. So cut it out — or face the consequences!

And by consequences, I mean progressive disciplinary action. I’m not advocating terminating every employee who uses inappropriate or inflammatory language immediately. When it happens, there is an opportunity to teach and coach about appropriateness and inclusion that should be seized. In the case of Mr. White and Mr. Black, the decision to terminate them was based on their altercation turning physical, not solely their use of the N-word. Had they not gotten into a fight, they probably wouldn’t have lost their jobs.

So what happened to Mr. Brown?  He stuck around. He was counseled and there were no further issues with him …

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