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Friday, August 31, 2007

Employee Relations Part I

Scenario 1:

A high performing department manager walks into your office. She has been highly successful at turning a low performing group into a high performing group. In the past 3 years, she has won two awards for her work. Senior management is highly impressed with her and holds her up as an example to other managers on how to get results. Turnover has been high, but each of the employees told you they were leaving for better positions--obviously this manager had trained them well.

The manager says: "I want to put a formal warning in Karen's file. Two times in the past month she has called out with absolutely no notice. Yesterday was the last straw. She let clients hang, didn't check her voice mail or e-mail and didn't even answer her phone the second and third time I called her. She said her child was sick, but then why didn't she answer her phone? And she has a laptop and I checked her office and the laptop was gone, so she obviously had it at home. There was no reason she couldn't check her e-mail. I deducted both days from her vacation, but that doesn't make this behavior acceptable!"

Your company's official policy is that sick days are only to be used when the employee is ill, not for sick children.

Karen has been with the company 6 months. She came highly recommended and has performed well. She rapidly gained understanding of the company and her responsibilities. To the best of your knowledge, she was a good hire with potential.

How do you respond to the manager? Right now?

(read the comments and then read Part II and Part III.)


EvilRJ said...

My grumpy instinct, based on working in a completely different jurisdiction (and it being late at night )is this:

Bah humbug Ebenezer Manager.

The high turnover point is interesting. The employees realised they didn't fit and are savvy enough to say "better positions" in the exit interview not to rock the boat? Lots of exits after a new-broom sweeps are often a "my face doesn't fit here anymore" which can be a win-win situation. Were the employees leaving all employees with children?

Based on the tone of the story, my sympathies are for Karen! But I come from a place where sick leave can be used for sick children (it's utterly normal to do so). And if Karen is off sick - then why was the manager calling a second or third time anyway?

FIrst call is enough to set up cover/expectations.
Depending what jurisdiction you are in, if Karen is sick, the third call is harassment. And if it's being deducted from her holiday..well it's not much of a holiday!

As a general rule, ringing in to change voicemail messages to notify the absence (and who to talk to) is reasonable unless you're in bed, in which case someone in the office needs to do that or redirect the phone. After that...

if it were a coasting employee whose been in a low-expectation department -then maybe a rocket is required, but that doesn't sound the case here.

Mind you, working for a company, let's call it "Marleycorp" which doesn't let you take time off when your kids are sick kind of sucks (what do you do when Tiny Tim has the flu? So bah humbug to Marleycorp too! Karen was at least honest in her reason. She could have pleaded 24 hour foodpoisoning and her own sickness and lied, and been within bounds (a few vomiting sounds in the background...)

But if Marleycorp's policy is clear (and only your own death or illness is acceptable) then maybe a written warning is a good reminder to start planning the move to Scandinavia.

Anyhoo..glad it is you not me having to deal with this one evilhrlady!

Beth Robinson said...

I'm not in HR, or a manager, but I thought I'd give it a try.

I'd immediately plan a meeting with both Karen and her manager. I would have the formal warning ready to put in Karen's file at the end of the meeting at the manager's discretion, because of my respect for her. I would tell her that during the meeting we would go over expectations for contact when out of the office, definitions of emergency, and so forth and ensure that both parties had full understanding. At this point, out of respect for Karen's performance so far, I would assume she's telling the truth and not trying to get away with something. The warning would serve to express the seriousness of the situation.

As for my personal reaction, well, I must come from a slower paced industry! Returning a call in 24 hours is preferred but not the end of the world. And if my manager went to HR to put in a formal warning before she talked to me about her concerns, especially when I'd been there less than a year, I would NOT be motivated to match my behavior to her expectations except in the "keep my job" sense. Unless, of course, expectations had been clearly laid out for me beforehand. I'd be more motivated by a genuine expression of concern for my child, followed by comments on what our clients expect from us, and so forth.

tabitharuth said...

Karen didn't answer the phone because she was at the doctor's office, her kid was constantly vomiting or she looked at the collar ID and cussed instead of picking up.

Karen should have called in so the clients would be taken care of but sometimes with a sick kid you Don't have time to check your email.

Placing a warning without talking to her is spiteful.

As for how to handle it, I have no idea. That's why I read your blog ;)

Hook said...

Huh, my first comment didn't make it.

I think a lot depends on the culture of the company and their past practice.

Personally, I wouldn't discipline her. Her child is sick. The manager needs to work with her staff to put measures in place for absences.

Sometimes employees need to completely disengage for personal sickness, or for a child's. I certainly wouldn't expect this of any of my managers.

Ask a Manager said...

I'd ask the manager: "Have you talked to Karen about your expectations for things she needs to take care of during unexpected absences?" If the answer is no, well, that's the first step. Don't discipline someone for not meeting an expectation you never laid out. On the other hand, if the answer is yes, I think I'd still suggest that the manager talk with Karen about this in person when she's back to work. Jumping to placing a formal warning in her file doesn't sound like great management to me; the goal is to work with Karen to get her to meet and exceed expectations, which a one-on-one conversation is usually better for than something formal like this. I'd save the formal warnings for times when there have already been several conversations and no improvement has resulted.

Frankly, I'd also start probing a little into the manager's style. Is there something else going on between her and Karen that caused this (seeming) overreaction? Is her group performing so well because everyone is afraid of her? Does she need to soften her style a bit so that she doesn't lose good employees? Maybe none of that is the case. But this would make me want to look around a bit.

tabitharuth said...

evilrj--I forgot to mention that I love your "MarleyCorp" name.

Tim Lacy said...

The company policy is flawed. No parent should be restricted for taking a sick day for his/her kid. Nothing should be done to/with Karen. - TL

Founder: Lea Setegn said...

There are two parts to this question: What to do to help Karen be the best employee she can be, and what to do to help this manager be the best PEOPLE manager she can be.

It's interesting that your description of this well-respected manager focuses on her results and not her methods. Another commenter asked good questions about the manager's style and whether this type of reaction is normal for her. If it is, does this type of management style fit into the company's culture? If it doesn't fit -- in other words, if this is not the type of management behavior that upper-upper-level managers would find acceptable -- I'd recommend talking things out with the manager before moving forward with anything involving Karen. The goal would be to make the manager better at her job before attacking Karen. (As Ask A Manager said, if Karen didn't know that not answering e-mails and calls was unacceptable, then the person to start with is the manager, not the employee.)

If the manager's reaction is typical management style for the company, then I'd recommend a meeting with the manager and Karen and myself, to see what Karen thought the expectations were before and formal paperwork was completed. The goal then would become making Karen a "better" employee, in terms of helping her fit the with company culture and making sure that she's meeting expecations.

I was chilled by the response of the non-HR person here that said he/she would dicipline Karen immediately and in writing. Wow. I suspect that this reaction is what non-HR folks think that HR does every time a manager demands something. HR people at the sucky places to work may have to do that. But a healthy company culture and HR department would look at a bunch of different angles on the situation and the projected outcome of each response before granting the manager's demand. Immediately doing what this manager wants would be the fastest way for Karen to resent the company and become an unproductive short-timer with an attitude -- and that's even worse for everyone, including the company itself.

DrinkingTea said...

I wonder if the 'two times in the past month' were documented and if Karen had received a verbal warning from the manager. If so, then a write up isn't completely out of line provided Karen knew that she had to make sure that clients were taken care of or passed on to someone in her absence in the event that she called out. If Karen had excellent attendance before this month, I wouldn't really do much other than to remind her of what the policies are. The kid was sick, but maybe she was, too.

I would also question Karen to see if FMLA is a potential issue here.

The manager harassing the employee could be a potential legal issue in some places.

Where I work, an hourly employee has to schedule vacation time in advance, sick leave is for the employee only (although we don't check up to see who exactly is ill if someone calls off since we don't require a doctor's note), and any other time off is taken as unpaid time off.

To the manager, I would ask if she has given Karen any verbal warnings and/or talked to her about calling off and would remind her of what official policy is. I would reprimand Karen if and only if she has been warned before and if she had violated company policy in a way that can be proven other than the whole 'who is the sick time for' thing. For example, if there were a policy stating, 'If you are going to be out, please notify so and so so they can handle your clients in your absence' that were violated, I would call her on that.

Beth Robinson said...

lea, my rationale behind having the formal written warning prepared to put in the file, after the discussion, if the manager still wanted it, was the idea that it would show respect for the manager's opinion. Without further discussion I wouldn't know whether verbal warnings had been given and expectations had been made clear, as drinkingtea points out. I didn't think starting out the discussion by questioning the manager's judgement was a good idea either. The best time to ask if a formal warning was truly necessary would be after sitting down with both Karen and the manager, in my uninformed opinion.

I enjoy reading evilHRlady's blog, and the comments, because I'm learning about a corporate area I have very little contact with, being in a satellite office with excellent managers to report to.

Jeff Deutsch said...


Beth has a good point insofar as HR does not exist simply to block managers, and respect should indeed be given to managers' opinions.

On the other hand, respect for a manager's opinions is not the same thing as giving written warnings at the manager's discretion, even after a conference. The whole point of a conference is to decide whether or not something like a written warning is necessary to begin with. If at the end of the conference it is left up to one of the parties - the manager - to determine that it is necessary, that defeats the purpose of the conference.

If the conference is presided over by, or at least involves, an HR person, then the outcome of that conference should incorporate HR's independent views as well. If the manager has the authority to issue a written warning on her own authority, let her do so - on her own.

As Beth herself points out, a written warning should not be given for violations of expectations that had not previously been spelled out to the employee. If HR is able to enforce that standard, it should do so. (Presumably if that were not the case, the manager would not have bothered coming to HR in this case.)

If on the other hand HR cannot stop a manager from taking a personnel action that HR hasn't determined is warranted, at least HR should withdraw its implicit approval.

Jeff Deutsch

Anonymous said...

Certainly it appears that the very question is posted because it's more complicated than it first appears. Others have read between the lines about the high turnover and setting out expectations, so I won't touch on those. However, it would be wise to hold back any judgment until the employee tells her side of the story and is given a fair right of reply. Failure to do so would reverberate throughout the company and affect relationships, possibly among staff and managers in other departments, if word got out that employees are treated unjustly. It may very well be that the employee was not using her laptop and did not answer the phone on the third call because she may very well have been at the doctor's or the Emergency Room. If that turns out to be the case, you'll certainly have a clearer view of what the manager is all about too.

Wally Bock said...

Let's unpack this. Both Ask and Founder make the point that you've got issues with both Karen and her manager. But there's another piece of this.

We don't yet know why Karen was off. She could have been in a car wreck and now lying comatose in an emergency room. Without the facts, any action is premature.

The point about clear expectations is dead on. Clear expectations are both stated and enforced. Merely having a policy does not constitute clear expectations.

I tell the supervisors I train to distinguish between noticing something and documenting it. That way you're not playing "gotcha" with the people who work for you. So last month, the manager could have approached Karen and said, "I've noticed that you've called out sick twice in the last week. When you do that it affects our relations with clients and makes extra work for the rest of us. I want to make sure you understand our policy on this and I want you to know that I'll be documenting future instances."

We don't know if anything like that happened. We don't know lots of things. We don't know if the sick policy as stated is uniformly enforced across the company or by this particular manager. And we don't know the culture of the company. In real life we'd have that.

class-factotum said...

Sick child or no, it takes only a minute to change a voicemail and to set email up with an autoresponse. Nope, I don't have kids, but I have had the frustration of working with colleagues who stay home with kids when school is closed for snow and who don't bother to check their voicemail. If you're not taking a vacation day for it, then you're working and have a responsibility to your colleagues and customers.

rp said...

#1 - The manager said this is the second time Karen has called in (or I could have read it as even the third time). What feedback did the manger give after the first time? The manager also has already talked to Karen ("She said her child was sick...") so what feedback did she give to Karen during that conversation in person? If "none" then a written warning is completely unwarranted; if it was a verbal warning then a written one is the next step - not the first step.

#2 - Karen is exchanging her time for the money the company is giving her (I assume fairly) to do the things that she did not do - take care of clients, be available to her co-workers, etc. If she isn't doing that she needs to forfeit (sp?) some of the money she's getting. Taking equivalent vacation days from her is very justified, which, apparently the manager has already done but insisting on a written warning as well feels kind of vindictive.

#3 - I have 6 kids myself so I understand that "stuff happens" but you've got to take care of both work and personal stuff. Not that you will always do both exceptionally well (the voice of experience) but you've got to take care of at least the bare minimum at all times - IMHO, that one of the things that separates the "...good hire[s] with potential" from those that aren't.

Anonymous said...

Shame on that manager- who jumped to conclusions.
Sick days are to be used for when the employee is ill, but I remember using all my sick time for when my child was ill when she was little. As for the employee not changing her voice mail and/or email away response- perhaps this associate was trying to see a pediatrician, perhaps the child was violently ill and needed help, and perhaps they were running to get a prescription, there are so many reasons why there was no communication. And if employees are taking a sick day, where does it say they also need to be working?
Maybe this immediate supervisor needs to be asking some questions- of their management style, clear expectations and clarity in communication themselves.
It is our job as managers to support our associates so they can be successful as possible and within the standards and expectations of the company, AND be flexible and compassionate when needed as well.