The best employee relations advice I ever received was from Max Schellman early in my career. I don't know where good old Max is anymore, but I still take his counsel to heart and share it today with you: better to be one step too slow than one step too fast.
In the US employee relations (or ER for short) is the discipline that essentially deals with disturbance in the workplace. Now, depending on the progressiveness of an employer, this might be in a very forward way trying to instill and maintain programs and processes designed to keep people collaborating and communicating.
That would be great.
Often though ER is a reactive science attending to problems and upsets in various ways, the most fundamental question being, is it the employee or us? I.e., when problems do occur, is the root cause employee behavior, or was there something systemic in practices that lead to the issue.
Now, having worked literally thousands of ER cases over the years I can tell you very few managers start with this unbiased open-ended query. In fact, the vast majority of cases I've worked on or heard of through conversations with my peers start out on the assumption that the employee did something wrong.
It's their fault.
This is a critical point: as ER people sometimes remind us the workplace isn't a court of law, and unlike the assumption of innocence until prove guilty in the US legal system many many employers assume employees are the causal agents when it comes to upset in the workplace.
This is a tremendous challenge for the ER professional – to be fair and thorough and equitable when the weight of management is on the presumptive side of employee responsibility for problems.
Hence, Max's sound advice: be one step too slow.
Meaning? When determing responsibility and response to a situation be one step behind the demand curve in meting out discipline (or the euphemistic “corrective action”). Do you have a progressive discipline system in place? Opt for the lesser response whenever possible. Already given someone a second chance? Try a third. Take the least impactful action – especially if reducing pay through time away for hourly-paid workers – that you can take to drive home your message.
Why? It's essential to understand ER affects everyone in the workplace, not just the principals. Other employees watch to see how we treat people during a problem. Are we even-handed, respectful and trying to do the right thing for all? That's a clear and compelling message, and one that drives culture.
Or, are we perceived as aggressive in pursuing disicpline doing slipshod investigations and rushing to judgement, a tool for management's bias for action regardless of culpability. If we are one step too fast that gets noticed too: and the cancer or dis-ease starts to grow in the workplace as employees wonder how they'll be treated if something happens during their tenure.
Make no mistake, some things demand a swift and sure response: violence, harassment, theft, et all will get you fired from most employers at the first instance as it should. But the truth is few employees ever go down these roads. The problems they either create or encounter are lesser in nature and our response should correspond to that.
Don't use a sledgehammer when a tap will do.
In managing employee relations be one step too slow and wirness the workforce population mature and respect your reasoned reactions and then commit to self-management.
In the end, that's the employee relations mode you really want.