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Symmetry Authors

Symmetry Video Series


Motivating Employees: HR tips for getting employees motivated and engaged with your company.

Workplace policies: Recognizing the good, the bad, and the ugly

Employment policies:  Do they keep organizations running smoothly?  Or are they trouble waiting to happen?  The answer to both questions is: sometimes.

Business owners spend a lot of time working on policies they hope will lead to productive, fair workplaces.  Often, though, policies can cause more problems than they solve.  Adding to the dilemma, HR practitioners and legal experts don’t always agree on what makes a good policy. 

Progressive discipline: Wise or weenyism?
Some called progressive discipline policies “the worst Godzilla weenyism.”  The belief is that lousy managers use progressive discipline policies as a crutch rather than talking with employees as adults when things go wrong instead of issuing warnings that may lead to termination.

Others beg to differ.  Advocating for the abolition of progressive discipline assumes that all supervisors are wise, fair, and measured in their responses to employee misconduct and performance issues and that they will all arrive at the same level of discipline for the same infraction.

For example, when someone claims discrimination after getting a warning for poor customer service, the investigator invariably asks for all examples of discipline against all employees for customer service issues over a period of time. Without progressive discipline providing a framework, supervisors could be all over the map and that discrimination claim could really mean something.

Progressive discipline policies can be troublesome.  The problem is slavish adherence to the progression and supervisors using it as a substitute for exercising sound judgment and some discretion.  Also, progressive discipline tempers against overreactions. Supervisors can build up a head of steam and push for termination when really the employee deserves at least one chance. If a supervisor wants to skip steps, have him make the case for it, document it, and if he makes a strong case allow it to happen. So it comes down to how you manage progressive discipline, not the policy itself.

Most employment attorney’s agree that progressive discipline policies can be useful since the purpose of the policy is to encourage managers to talk with employees soon after a problem is identified instead of waiting for a performance review.  Progressive discipline provides employees notice of problems and gives them an opportunity to improve, she says.

Reference rules
Another area that sparks differing opinions concerns whether managers should be allowed to give references on former employees.  The thinking goes that a reference-seeker can’t file a defamation lawsuit if the manager never has the opportunity to provide a bad reference. But that thinking can be flawed.  People are terminated for many reasons and not all mean they are bad employees.  But the biggest problem is that no-reference policies is that they’re often not followed.  The so-called personal references are given by your employees using their job title and corporate email.

The fact of the matter is, it is difficult to control what people will say, and one person with bad judgment can lead to a lot of trouble.   Some advocate a “middle road” in which no references are to be given without a signed reference request form that releases the company from liability.  But that is not a bullet proof vest.

The lawsuit risk isn’t the only reason to have a no-reference policy.  These policies also make sense because managers who are called for job references do not always have all of the information necessary to give an accurate and appropriate job reference.

Attending to attendance
Punishing employees for being a few minutes late can be a “grade school attendance policy”. The most sound approach is to talk to the employee and work together to find a solution.  Truthfully, sometimes it comes down to the employee and the manager have two different definitions of what “being late” is.

However that may work in an office setting, but if you have a work setting that requires prompt attendance to releave another employee or in a factory type setting where all need to be on time for people to start, a good leader will administer the policy by inquiring about the obstacles to getting to work, but for fairness and consistency, relies on a clear policy.

Additionally, more structured attendance policies make it easier to treat employees equally, rather than relying on supervisors to make judgment calls about when an employee should be disciplined for tardiness or attendance issues and risking a claim that two employees were treated differently.

A coaching kind of atmosphere might work in certain settings, however, there are a lot of chronic absentee problems that the employer is not going to solve by “talking it out.”

Policy pointers
Attorneys will remind employers that regardless of how they feel about particular rules, certain policies are must-haves. For example, employers need policies covering at-will employment; discrimination, harassment and retaliation; and adherence to the Fair Labor Standards Act.  Other policies are must-not-haves. For example, employers must not have policies prohibiting employees from talking about wages, and they must not have policies that have the effect of making an employee handbook a contract.