Tag Archives: Employee Relations

Employee Investigation Best Practices

Investigations are one of the toughest parts of working in HR, because you have to work between very fine boundaries and there is always going to be someone upset with the result, no matter how gently you tread. In the various investigations I’ve been a part of, I have picked up some tips and tricks that help to make the process more smooth. No matter the result, if you know you’ve done your best and have given the most definitive answer possible, then that’s pretty much the only way you’ll have a satisfied feeling after you close the books.

I still vividly remember one of the first serious investigations I was a part of. Does this scenario sound familiar?

Employee comes to you claiming she is being harassed by a supervisor. The only witness is the best friend and coworker of the employee. The employee has been having consistent performance issues for some time and was on the verge of a performance improvement plan at the time of report.

So, how do you proceed? It’s a tricky road, especially since the employee is also a military reservist and the manager has voiced complaints about her service in the past…

The Benefits of Investigations

I do want to say this. While it’s not all roses and candy canes, there are some positive benefits of investigations worth noting:

  • Doing it properly and impartially helps to defend the company against litigation
  • Doing it fairly and quickly helps employees to see that the process and people involved are trustworthy

Again, not pleasant, but definitely worthwhile.

The Top Five Investigation Mistakes

I’ve seen many investigations go wrong, and it doesn’t have to be that way. Let’s walk through the top five mistakes I see and how to counteract them.

  1. Delayed action
  2. Poor planning
  3. Retaliation
  4. Lack of follow up
  5. Losing objectivity

Delaying is a problem, because unlike your favorite pair of yoga pants this doesn’t get better with time. Whatever your reason for delay, get over it and get to work. Too busy you say? How would you like to explain a $95 million judgment to your boss? Yeah, I thought so. Move this to the top of your list, get to work, and get it done.

Planning is an issue. Most inexperienced HR pros freeze when the investigation hits their desk. But the pros know that following the plan/process is the fastest and most painless way to get through. Taking a little time to put together a simple plan will not only help to improve the results and reduce your stress–it will also help to make sure you are consistent across a variety of investigations, topics, etc.

Retaliation is a huge problem. The EEOC is trying to determine new guidelines regarding this issue. I always start every investigation with a clear message to everyone involved: retaliation will not be tolerated by anyone throughout the entire process, whatever the result turns out to be.

Lack of follow up can be another hangup. It’s tough to make sure you touch base with everyone after the fact, because you know that as soon as you file that report with the right people you have to get back to the work that has been stacking up on your desk since you started the investigation. Even if you can’t share results with the people involved, at least let them know when you wrap it up. And you do create and file a written report for each investigation, right?

Finally, losing objectivity is my Achilles heel. There are two sides to this that get to me. The first is trying to remain objective despite obvious and outrageous evidence presented at the outset. It’s hard to assume that someone is innocent until proven guilty, but you need to ingrain that into your thought process. Secondly, if someone becomes emotional it’s very easy to want to comfort and share your own opinions, but that doesn’t help anyone. Keep a lid on it.

Bottom line: we all have issues. Still, it’s up to you to help make sure your organization isn’t blindsided by something that could have been addressed in its early stages.

What interesting, weird, or crazy investigations have you carried out? Any tips to share? 

Firing Employees Who Are Unproductive

firing poor performers

Awhile back I received an email from a reader about how to let an employee go who is not performing adequately. It surprised me because I don’t know that I’ve ever actually written on the topic specifically before. I want to talk about some of the dos and don’ts, but first, a story.

The Time Thief

A few years ago a manager called me to see if I could look into an employee’s time card. The employee was consistently putting forty hours of work on his timesheet, but he was arriving late, leaving early, and taking long lunches on a regular basis.

So I reached out to the company managing the security access point to get the gate logs for this person. Mind you, this is just getting me the time that he swipes into and out of the gate outside the building, not the specific time he’s at his computer and actually productive.

A quick dump into Excel and a few calculations later… My jaw dropped.

The records showed that this person had worked six to six and a half hours per day on average for as far back as the gate checkin log showed (several months). I was dumbfounded that it took this long for the attendance to be discovered by the managers on site. Just in that one spreadsheet alone the employee had been paid for nearly 200 hours of work he never actually performed.

I quickly launched my investigation, talking with his supervisor and our site manager, gathering all of our time data to make sure everything was correct. You see, as a federal contractor, we were billing the government for all of the time the person supposedly worked. If it could have been proven that we were knowingly allowing this sort of behavior to continue, half of the company’s employees could have lost their jobs overnight–not to mention the fines and other penalties levied by the auditors.

So, after a few days to gather everything, I got the employee’s supervisor and the site lead to sit down with me on the phone from six hours away. The employee came in and I told him what I had found and asked if he had any questions. His only response was, “Can I file for unemployment?”

Then the real story began. The employee was quickly approved for their unemployment claim and started receiving checks shortly after being terminated. I spent the next four months fighting that unemployment claim, trying to get the investigator to understand that this wasn’t as simple as poor attendance or a “one strike and you’re out” policy–the employee put the entire company at stake with his behavior.

A final written appeal won the case for the company (felt like a personal victory for me as well) and the employee had to pay all of their unemployment compensation back to the state for lying about their reason for termination. What seemed like a slam dunk investigation and termination finally came to a close and the organization and I could move on to more meaningful activities.

Terminating Unproductive Employees

In some ways, these can be the “easiest” terminations to make. I absolutely hate having to drop employees who are productive, good people. But when someone has had chances, warnings, and other opportunities to make good on their end of the deal and have failed (willingly or not), I have to say that it’s easier to handle the process.

I’ve always thought of it this way: the employee chooses the path–I just help them walk down it. 

The most basic principles that have helped me through all of the terminations I’ve carried out are these: be courteous and respectful. If you have already built trust and rapport with the employee, it will help in this conversation. If not, there might not be much you can do to build it at this point. If you were sitting on the other side of the table, how would you want to be treated? It sounds trite, but it’s indubitably true.

The implication of the original question that got me thinking about this topic was that the person didn’t want to terminate the employee and wanted to give them “just one more chance” after already failing numerous times. This is dangerous and can set up a painful precedent for the organization. It can also damage leader credibility, so it’s important to make the call, take action, and move on.

What advice do you have for terminating employees?

 

How I Burned Myself on 450 Degree Steel (and what you can learn from it)

Years ago I worked for a small machine shop owned by my parents. One thing that you might not know about steel is that it can vary wildly from piece to piece. The quality, flexibility, hardness, etc. are all subject to the creation and subsequent treatment processes on that individual piece. Occasionally we would have to send off a piece of steel to be heat-treated at a specialized facility, but there were times when we had a small piece that could actually be treated in our oven by “baking” it for several hours at a specific temperature.

steelWell, you might imagine where this story is going. One night I came home and saw a very unique-looking piece of steel sitting on the counter.

Being a curious soul, I did what anyone would do after seeing something interesting.

I picked it up.

It’s at this point that I want to remind y0u that steel doesn’t share physical qualities with items like marshmallows, water, or plastic. When it’s heated to 450 degrees, it looks exactly the same as it did when it was room temperature. There are no bubbles, steam, or awful smells to distinguish it from any other hunk of metal.

I burned the fingers on one hand pretty bad from that short (seemed like forever at the time!) moment I held the steel. And that, my friends, leads me to the lesson for today.

What this means for your organization

Yes, there’s a lesson here for all of us. Sometimes things are going on that we can’t always see. There are constant changes, ebbing and flowing throughout the organization. It’s your job to stay tuned into those things as a way to manage the people side of the business.

Whether that comes in the form of a survey, employee focus groups, solid informal relationships with your supervisors, or another channel for employees to bring items to your attention, you need to be aware of what’s going on.

Why? Because more often than not, if it turns out to be a problem, you’ll be the one called in to solve it. I can’t count the number of times being in tune with the “rhythm” of the organization allowed me to head off molehills before they became mountains.

Oh, and next time you see a piece of steel, make sure it’s not hot before you pick it up. The safety tip is free. :-)

Can I (and Should I) Fire An Employee for Social Media Content?

google job candidatesThere is a phenomenon that doesn’t get talked about much publicly, but it’s something that in-the-trenches HR folks deal with fairly regularly. While we want to “rise up” and think about big picture, have a strategic viewpoint, and assume the best, there are always going to be friction points that hold us back. It’s a part of the whole “working with people” thing. :-) Today I want to talk through a few recent questions I have received around the impact of social media in the workplace.

We recently hired someone, but after he started I found out that he is posting offensive content to his Instagram page. Should we fire him? This is his first real job after college.

In some cases, it’s perfectly acceptable to terminate someone for what they are sharing online, especially if it would be harmful for your company if it were to come into the public eye. In this case, I’d take a coaching approach initially. The guy’s in his first job and might not realize the implications of what he is sharing. Take him aside, explain why he should NOT be sharing offensive things on a public social media site, and ask him to make it private and/or stop. Continue reading

Unconventional HR Advice: Love Your People

love your employeesLast week I was listening to a business owner talk about how he leads his company. He talked through several areas he thought were pertinent, but one statement he made really stuck out.

You have to love your people.
-Zack Penney

As I think back over my time as an HR professional, the times that I felt like I was making the most difference in the lives of my staff was when I held a very similar mindset. We have to care for these people, because if you don’t someone else will. It’s no different than marriage, kids, friends, etc. We all want someone to value and care about us. If we don’t get it from our immediate surroundings then we tend to look elsewhere for it.

Not only that, but when it’s time to make decisions that affect the people that work with you, it’s going to help you to frame those decisions. I know that just because you care that can’t drive everything you do, but doing something negative with care, respect, and concern for the person on the other end of the transaction will soften the experience and make it easier to digest.

And if you’re reading this and thinking, “There’s no way I could really care for these people I’m working with,” then it might be time to find somewhere else where that is a possibility.

As you go through your day today, ask yourself:

  • Do I really care for these people?
  • Do they know it?
  • If I have to deliver bad news, how does that care and concern factor into the discussion/decision?

What say you? Is this a worthwhile aspiration or a silly waste of time? I’d love to hear your thoughts. 

Intuition is a Critical Skill for Great HR Pros

Intuition, awareness, or whatever you want to call it–it’s a critical skill if you want to be a successful HR pro. I’m a fan of examples to prove my point, so let’s dive in!

Seeing the needs of new employees

Recently I was helping to onboard a new group of employees. We had won a new contract and needed to pull the new folks into the fold ASAP with no downtime or issues.

The “standard” HR practice would be to gather all of the employees in a single place, give them a speech, hand out paperwork, and wait for it to roll in. However, that’s not how I handled it.

Instead, we sat down with each individual employee. That meant the entire exercise took approximately 10 times as long; however, there were some conditions that I had examined that told me the one-on-one would be more beneficial across the board. Here’s where that intuition/awareness/whatever comes into play.

  • They were coming from a “big company” employer that didn’t treat them as individuals or as highly valuable.
  • In my one previous meeting with the group, there were a few people who felt their concerns were not addressed for one reason or another.
  • Our history had always been that of a high-touch HR function, and this was the first chance to prove it.
  • I knew that with contracts like these, the people were going to speak freely more often if it was a private conversation than if it was in a group.

In the end, that was definitely the right answer. Each person got to spend some individual quality time talking about their hopes, concerns, and other thoughts.

Developing your intuition muscle

This is one of those skills that is more difficult to develop. Some of us are just more aware of our surroundings, the considerations of others, etc. However, I believe it’s possible to learn to be more intuitive and aware of the things going on around you. Here are a few tips for making that a new focus:

  • Especially in situations like the one depicted above where there will be many “first impressions” all at once, take some time to consider what impression you’re giving. How you interact is how they will expect the rest of the company to interact as well.
  • In your day to day, think about how others will perceive and process what you have to say. Even if it doesn’t change what you say or how you say it, understanding how to predict the responses of others is critical for someone in this role.
  • Once you have started honing your intuition skills, start sharing the insights with other managers and staff. For example, when I learn about a new policy rolling out affecting specific employees, I let the manager know generally what to expect from some of the people who might not respond well to the changes. That helps them to prepare for the response as well as making them more likely to rely on that advice again in the future, especially if it prevents an employee relations headache!

What are your thoughts on this? I think intuition is a highly valued, yet relatively unknown, skill for HR pros to develop and maintain. Have you seen others value you for your intuition and insights? How did that play out? I’d love to hear your story. 

Government Contracting HR: Retaining Cleared Employees

For those of you who don’t work in the government contracting HR world, “cleared” employees are those who the government has granted a clearance to work with sensitive materials. This clearance is very important, and to get one the employee (and employer) have to agree to some specific requirements. Today I’d like to talk generally about a topic that I had experience with previously to give those outside this industry a view of how things are different. If there is sufficient interest I can talk more about some of the other specific requirements of working in HR for a government contractor in future content. You guys let me know…

Reporting employees to the government

One of the primary responsibilities on both the employee and the employer is this: if the person has anything in their life that might affect their judgement or capabilities, the government needs to know about it, because it could affect their clearance. The employee is supposed to supply the information to the employer, but there are times when the employer becomes aware of something that was not brought to their attention (that sometimes is worse, because the requirement for the employee to notify immediately is pretty serious).

Once the information is known, the initial facts are provided to the government representative and a chain of events is set in motion. Sometimes nothing happens, but sometimes it can cause the person to lose their clearance. And in a job where having a clearance is a requirement to do the essential functions, that means they are out of a job.

I illustrate this so we all understand how serious it is, as well as to explain why an employee might cover up this information initially to protect themselves and their family.

The number one rule in HR

If you think about everything you do, one of the most important rules that you have to live by is confidentiality. You have to keep things quiet, secure, locked away, etc. Yes, we need to share when the situation dictates it, but more often than not the conversations we have on a daily (hourly?) basis with our staff are locked away in our heads for nobody else to see or know.

Government contracting HR: The intersection

If an employee comes to you with a story about their spouse being laid off, what do you say? Suppose the employee returns a month later and tells you that they are being foreclosed on due to the job layoff. How do you respond?

This is tactical, hands-on HR. The “good” HR person is going to sit down with them, offer any advice/support they can, and generally be a comforting presence in this troubled time in the employee’s life. Maybe you have something positive to share. Maybe you offer them some flexible time in order to take care of things at home. Whatever the case, you acknowledge their dilemma and offer what support you can.

If you’re in the government contracting HR field, the next step is taking that conversation straight to your security professional and having them report that information to the government. And honestly? It stinks. Because if the government believes that this person is no longer trustworthy due to the personal/financial problems they are facing, they can pull the job out from under them in a moment’s notice.

For me, that was one of the hardest lessons to learn stepping into the government contracting HR world. This stuff has some unique twists and turns that make it harder than usual to handle those personal and emotional issues that come up in the average day to day life of all of us.

If I have to provide a lesson in all of this, it’s just a reminder that ensuring our employees are well in every sense of the word: emotionally, financially, physically, etc. should be a priority for us. Getting the best from our people doesn’t happen by accident; we have to work at it.

Have you ever worked in government contractor HR? Would you even be interested after hearing this example?