In The Workplace

Our HR department used to take the lead in handling personally all disciplinary cases in our organization. Now that we have a new HR head, major changes had been introduced including a new policy requiring all line supervisors and managers to personally handle all offenses that merit reprimand and suspension up to dismissal. Which is correct — the old or new policy? — Decoding

Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev and American President John Kennedy were having a vigorous exchange. Finally, Kennedy asked Khrushchev — “Do you ever admit a mistake?” The Premier responded, “Certainly, I do. In a speech before the 20th Communist Party Congress, I admitted all of Stalin’s mistakes.”

To answer your question, let me give you my personal dictum: “Whoever has the authority and final decision to hire has the same authority and responsibility to discipline and fire erring workers.” The role of HR is basically a staff function with the basic responsibility of giving professional advice to line management executives.

Therefore, it was a mistake for the former HR head to personally handle the line function of other departments, even when it was allowed by those concerned. Of course, the exception to this is when an HR staff violates a company rule, and therefore must be disciplined by the HR head or anyone representing him.

In Management 101, HR as a staff authority has a special task that includes studying and sharing of industry best practices, giving advice, and making recommendations to line executives within the same organization. HR, like the finance department, will have the same staff authority to coordinate with line executives on which accounting forms to use to facilitate the release of budget and eventual purchase of certain equipment or services.

Even without this theoretical underpinning, it is unthinkable, unwise, if not impractical for an HR department to discipline all erring workers, while their line bosses whistle their way around until the next potentially problematic worker. Let me tell you this once again. Problem employees and employees with problems are created by problem managers.

If only these line executives are qualified to perform their job of personally nurturing and motivating their workers, like a green thumb gardener (as opposed to a lumberjack), then there should be no disciplinary issue that reaches HR.

Sometimes there are line managers who do not want to handle such difficult tasks as giving reprimands, much less suspending employees or dismissing them. But they don’t have much choice if they want to remain part of the management team. If this happens, HR may hold the hand of the concerned line executive, but the latter must still play an active and strategic role.

To make everything run smoothly, HR and the line department must study the applicable policy, rediscover established precedents (or exceptions) and more importantly to observe both substantive and procedural due process. HR may be present to support the line executive in issuing the “Notice to Explain” (NTE) and guide both parties (the boss and erring worker) on the proper procedure.

HR’s presence in the disciplinary process may be helpful, if only to ensure that the worker is given his full day in court. Therefore, HR must remain objective and neutral in the entire process to secure the trust of the worker.

Remember that the higher purpose of employee discipline is to correct unwarranted behavior and therefore must follow the following approaches, many of which are not be included in the Company’s Code of Conduct:

One, observe due process whoever is involved. This is very basic and no staff and line authority should ignore it. Most codes of conduct have the proper procedure but it is better to update them to reflect the latest labor jurisprudence. Try to use the term “Code of Conduct” rather than the much-hated “Code of Discipline.”

Two, hold the session in a private room.  Don’t hold the meeting inside the room of the boss or HR head. It’s better if the meeting is held in a board room, a neutral environment for both parties. Such a location means other employees will not have a chance to hear the discussion. It also gives everyone an opportunity for uninterrupted discussion, free from unwanted telephone calls or intrusions.

Three, be specific about the offense committed. And do this in writing. If the charge is too vague or general, the worker may later use it as a defense to claim that management has no case against him. Being categorical and specific includes answering who, what, where, when, why and how, among other things.

Four, calm down if the worker gets emotional. Wait until he calms down before proceeding to issue the Notice to Explain. This doesn’t mean, however, that you have to endure more than 20 minutes of discourse against management or discussing irrelevant issues. If the situation becomes intense, try settling things down by having a short break.

Last, limit the number of persons inside the room. Depending on the nature of the offense, gravity of the penalty to be imposed, and the personality of the erring worker, it is advisable that both HR head or his representative and the concerned line executive to personally issue the NTE. It is for the protection of both line and staff authority as the situation could be potentially dangerous for management.

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