You Can't Factor Out Judgment

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. 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.

Managing employees is an art, not a science. More importantly, it’s not a sport or a game. What doesn’t work is an approach or “algorithm” that shows if this happens, than that is the action you have to take, 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?”

Not every situation is going to fit into the same neat, tidy package. It is critical to consider of all the issues and facts before making a decision and judgment cannot be factored out of the decision-making process. Not all situations are the same and not all employees are the same.

While managers can’t expect a perfect algorithm for making employee decisions, employees can’t expect to have everything spelled out for them – like the employee who once said during a disciplinary meeting, “No one ever told me I couldn’t do that.” 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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