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Ask the HR Expert: Employee Engagement & Performance Issues

Posted by NEHRA  November 9, 2009 09:00 AM

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Q. I have an employee who has/ is having a relationship with another employee in another department. Outside of the moral issue (as one of them is married) what can be done to address this without being overly aggressive? Due to their relationship one tends to give special attention to the issues of the other but hasn't ignored other work to the point that you could say they are not doing their job. What advice can you share?

A. First of all, I would get your HR organization involved. If you’re too small to have an HR organization, I would obtain the advice of outside council. Also, I’m assuming there is no direct or indirect reporting relationship? If so, then immediate intervention would be required (and hopefully, your business has a policy prohibiting dating direct and or indirect line reporting relationships). If there is no direct line reporting relationship, we’re dealing in very delicate territory. For starters, I would sit with your employee and mention that you’ve become aware of this situation, and remind the individual that no special attention, favors, priorities, etc. can go to the other individual or other individual’s department. Reinforce the ground rules that disciplinary action could occur if this became the case. I would also have the HR organization sit with the individual who is married and increase his/her awareness that this has come to their attention, and the Company is concerned about the potential ramifications. He / She might deny the allegation. Or he/she might say, “it’s none of your business – I’m doing my job.” Again, a very delicate situation that would require additional information to pass along additional guidance. I strongly advice obtaining the input of HR and legal before proceeding much further.


Q. I have had recurring issues with my general manager. I e-mailed and spoke with our regional HR representative after the first offense, but since then I have been completely ignored. I understand that what is said between HR and other employees is completely confidential, but two of the other managers (after speaking with the regional HR rep) confided to me that he had read my subsequent e-mails and was ignoring them until the issue "blows over." At this point I feel completely helpless and fear for my job. My question is what should my next step be?

Another delicate situation. I have a lot of respect for the HR profession and have a difficult time think an HR professional would wait until something “blows over”. Unless I’m missing something, I tend to think there are additional parts of this story that are missing. You indicated that you’ve brought this up to your HR representative already. Have you revisited the events since with him/her? If not, I recommend that as the next step. Before you elevate this to the next level, that is the appropriate “next step”. If after you bring your HR representative back into the loop and you’re still not satisfied, I would bring it up to his/her direct report (HR Director?), and outline the events you’ve outlined above. And I would not talk anymore to anyone else involved until you have this follow up meeting.


Q. I have an employee who did not show up for work or call in to say wasn't able to. She has thrown back work continually in the past and has not arranged to come for her mandatory annual training. Is this instant dismissal?

A. Employment is at will, meaning you can hire/fire without cause, so technically you can dismiss this individual but remember she can also decide to stop off at her lawyer’s office on the way home. From your description this lack of commitment and acceptance of work sounds like a well established pattern. My question is whether this employee has been counseled about these performance issues and realizes her job is in jeopardy. Let me provide a framework around the performance intervention process which should help you identify whether you think this person has had a fair chance to get her performance back on track:

Single Incidents
An individual makes a mistake or misstep such as the first time they don’t show or call or refuse work. The appropriate response is to have an informal early intervention conversation to bring awareness to the employee about what happened and what is expected for future. Single incident conversations represent our best opportunity to get the employee onto the right path.

Apparent Patterns
When single incidents are not addressed they commonly evolve into apparent patterns, where the negative behavior or performance is repeated on a regular basis. There could be two reasons for this:
• The employee is completely unaware of the issue (it is in her blind spot).
• The employee is aware of her actions, but because the issue hasn't been addressed she assumes it isn't serious enough to warrant any intervention (the issue is known but unspoken).

Most often, addressing single incidents early on heads off the formation of the “apparent patterns” stage. Of course there are exceptions that will become noticeable when:

• The employee repeats the incident because she cannot do what is being asked.
• There is a motivational issue preventing her from sustaining the expected performance that was communicated and agreed to previously.

Persistent Patterns

When single incidents and apparent patterns go unaddressed they tend to morph into persistent patterns where the adverse behavior or exhibited performance problem becomes the norm. If these issues were addressed in a straightforward manner in the past (as they came up), then I would agree that this person should be put on an exit plan. If these issues were not previously addressed she should be given an opportunity to gain awareness of required expectations and make a verbal commitment to get her performance back on track.

Disciplinary Action
When the actions above were pursued, documented and still continue then it’s time to dismiss the individual. After all, you did your job as a manager and tried to help the employee out, but now it’s time to help her out of the organization.

When looking at the steps and phases of performance counseling above it seems like it can take months or a year to go through the process. Not so. This can all take place within a matter of weeks (or less if she won’t agree to comply). The employee should have the opportunity to at least receive the feedback and counseling before termination.

Read more about the performance intervention process at:


Q. We have a supervisor that has not been performing well. She has been spoken with on numerous occasions about her lack of performance and her attitude. We want to demote her from supervisor, but now she is pregnant and we are worried about this demotion appearing as though it is a result of the news of her pregnancy. Are we able to demote this person without any ramifications?

A. I’m going to take this question at face value and assume this supervisor was “spoken to” which leads me to believe written documentation is absent. From the employee’s perspective and the courts for that matter, if the documentation is missing, there’s a good chance that the demotion will appear go be linked to gender and pregnancy discrimination. I would work to learn the following from the manager of this individual:

• Was a clear and urgent message communicated? How many times was it communicated and when?
• Did the employee agree?
• What was the agreed upon plan of action?
• Was there follow up to let the employee know she still wasn’t meeting expectations?
• Is there written documentation?

First, I have no doubt that this person is underperforming in her role as supervisor, but is she aware she’s about to be demoted? Was she provided coaching around what she needed to accomplish in order to successfully meet the role requirements? My guess is that this employee won’t see the demotion coming. When she learns of it she’ll be boiling mad, as any reasonable person would, and will begin think about how to retaliate legally.

Legal Implications
You are right to be worried about the demotion appearing as thought it is a result of her pregnancy. The Pregnancy Discrimination Act is an amendment to Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Discrimination on the basis of pregnancy, childbirth, or related medical conditions constitutes unlawful sex discrimination under Title VII, which covers employers with 15 or more employees, including state and local governments. Thousands of women who are pregnant or new mothers file charges every year with the Equal Opportunity Commission.

Can the Performance of This Individual be Salvaged?
In summary it could very well look like you were discriminating against this individual if the performance issue wasn’t document pre-pregnancy. Your best option might be to begin taking the right steps now. I would ask whether this individual has been given a fair opportunity to improve. Oftentimes with the right feedback and support the employee is able to meet the expectations. It is clear that the key reason leaders avoid giving feedback is not because they don't understand the problem but rather because they don't know how to craft a message that is sayable and hearable. Put the focus on the positive, desired performance rather than highlighting the current negative performance. Read more about how to create hearable sayable talking points at Difficult Performance Discussions.

Read more about state and federal laws protecting employees against gender and pregnancy discrimination at: and


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About NEHRA - The Voice of HR Featuring articles and resources for Human Resources / HR professional and hiring managers from the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA).

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