You Can't Factor Out Judgment

Dilbert: “I need something called a decision.”

I spent a great deal of my HR career working in employee relations. People continue to fascinate me and I'm amazed at what I continue to learn.

I met an HR professional who also had a strong employee relations background. We were clearly of the same mind when it came to dealing with employee issues. We agreed on what doesn’t work, namely an approach or “algorithm” that shows if this, than that, or as someone once asked me, “Don’t you have a three-strikes and you’re out model for dealing with performance or behavior issues?”

Managing employees is an art, not a science. More importantly, it’s not a sport or a game. Not every situation is going to fit into the same neat, tidy package. Consideration of all the issues and facts is a critical part of the decision making process, and judgment cannot be factored out of the process. Not all situations are the same and not all employees are the same. Consider the following:

Two employees were caught drinking a six-pack of beer during their meal break in a van parked in the company parking lot. The company had a clear policy regarding the consumption of alcohol on the premises. One of the employees had a long tenure with the company along with a long history of disciplinary actions. If discipline, which comes from the word disciple, means to teach, he hadn’t learned anything. He did not make an attempt to change his behavior despite the company’s efforts to help. The second employee had a shorter tenure, two to three years. This was his first policy violation. The first employee was terminated, but the second was suspended without pay for five days. When the first employee cried foul, we only had to produce his record which showed that the company had tried to work with him over the years.

During a recent round-table discussion where someone described “serial” disruptive behavior by a staff member, she went on to say that the organization wanted to make sure everything was equal. Apparently someone else had engaged in similar behavior – once. Not different from the situation described above. I pointed out that the behaviors she described did not appear equal – the first sounded like a pattern and practice of behavior which while the second appeared to be an isolated incident.

While managers can’t expect a perfect algorithm for making employee decisions, employees can’t expect to have everything spelled out for them. They too must exercise some judgment. Employee accountability is the second critical factor in the equation.

Policies should be management guidelines and not “cookbooks”. Managers need to recognize that while they must be consistent in their approach to managing people, they have a say in the decision-making process. Their judgment matters. Don’t expect to treat everyone “equally”, because not all situations and circumstances are equal. You can’t expect to treat a long-tenured employee with a good record, who happens to have a few missteps, the same as you would treat someone who had been with the company a short time and managed to build a disciplinary and negative performance history quickly.

Treat everyone with fairness and respect and most importantly, don’t factor judgment out of the process.

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