Navigating Emotional Minefields

The phone rings and you answer it not expecting the challenge that's about to be presented. Individuals are vulnerable and problems arise, even in the best of organizations. Sound practices and resources help leaders to navigate through the worst situations, ensuring associates are treated with fairness and respect.

Not long ago I lead a discussion about employee relations. One participant shared a situation about an employee’s behavior -- it was not interfering with his performance nor was it threatening to others -- it was just bizarre and concerning. They wanted to send him for a medical evaluation but did not have a "fitness-for-duty policy." Their attorney advised that a fitness for duty was not a good thing anyway because once they knew what the problem was they could be liable under the ADA. I wasn't sure I agreed. A fitness for duty isn't a diagnosis. Rather it's an assessment of whether or not someone can perform his or her job without a threat to self or others. I ran this by an EAP specialist and she confirmed that my understanding was correct.

More recently I heard of a more serious situation where the employee's behavior was posing a potential threat of physical harm and the company had sent the individual for an assessment. The results raised some serious concerns. My colleague shared that her firm was evaluating the situation and had yet to make a decision -- stay tuned. I didn't envy her position but admired her approach. They were seeking advice from a number of sources.

Difficult situations require hard decisions and decision-making is a process. Judgment has to be part of the process. Policies reflect culture. Some organizations have rigid, zero tolerance policies for certain behaviors, no exceptions. Others see policies as guidance to sound decision making. They are one resource, but not the sole resource, used when assessing a situation.

When faced with a situation similar to my colleague's, consult with medical, legal and security experts to assess the risk. If there is a potential threat of harm, the employee may need to be removed from the workplace. You won't know this without consultation from the proper experts. That employee may still need help, but with flexible policies and decisions, help can be made available.

Be aware that whatever decision is made, there will be a risk. However, with advice from the experts and sound policies and practices as guidance, the risk can be minimized. Even with a decision is to terminate employment legal risk can be mitigated if the company shows it made a compassionate and thorough decision.

The cornerstones of positive employee relations can be found in external factors such as an organization’s response to laws and regulations and internal factors, such as its culture, policies and practices, and the resources it uses in addressing challenges. In assessing your policies and practices, ask

· What do they say?
· Do they work in concert with each other?
· Are they applied consistently in similar situations?
· Do they provide flexibility
· What is unique about the situation and individuals involved?
· How are they communicated to employees & managers?
· Do managers receive training on applying the policies?
· Are you factoring judgment into the decision process?

Remember that any decision you make is not without risk, but don’t let that be an excuse for not making any decision.

1 comment ()

1. Beth Gilley wrote:
Love this summary about the best way to address tough employee issues! It makes so much sense to have as much information as possible, call on experts, and evaluate all the information before moving forward.

January 28, 2014 @ 8:43 AM


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