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Author Christine V. Walters, SHRM-SCP, has it backwards when it comes to HR. That's not a criticism, though. That's the way her book is written—starting with the termination of the employment relationship and working back through the employee life cycle to the onboarding process. This unique perspective shows how things can sometimes sour at work and how HR can prevent problems before they arise.
The second edition of From Hello to Goodbye: Proactive Tips for Maintaining Positive Employee Relations (SHRM, 2017) features new research and tips for preventing workplace bullying and avoiding litigation. It includes guidance on complying with complex statutes like the Family and Medical Leave Act and resources for updating your policies and practices. Walters, is an attorney who advocates a proactive approach to dealing with some of the sticky situations that can arise in the office. Here's a sampling:
Terminating the employment relationship. "Do you know the demographics of your last 10 involuntary terminations, or your discharges in the last six months?" Walters asks. "If not, you should." Monitor at least the age, race and sex of employees who have been involuntarily terminated from employment. Absent a legal problem regarding the wrongful termination of people in a protected class, your review might uncover a problem manager. Use the objective data to launch a conversation about why the manager is experiencing higher-than-average separation rates with certain groups.
Document, document, document. What should you note and why? The good news is that you're not expected to document everything. Instead, you should "document by exception." Note both the exceptionally good and the not-so-good events and behaviors. Without good documentation, it might be harder to show that an adverse employment action—a termination, a denied promotion, a corrective notice—was the result of a business decision and not based on the employee's status as a member of a protected class.
Coaching, counseling and correcting. "First tip: Always have a box of tissues in your office," Walters says. Tears and the emotions that come with them often create uncomfortable situations. But they may also represent an opportunity for HR. If a worker is dealing with a personal issue unrelated to work, remind the person of confidential counseling available through your employee assistance program.
Managing disability and leave issues. Have you ever found out from a supervisor that an employee has been absent from work for several weeks without HR's knowledge? That's all too common because managers don't know the fine details of federal and state leave laws. And they shouldn't, either. But they are on the front lines, so train managers on what should be communicated to HR.
Maintaining an inclusive workplace. More than 1 in 4 people have been bullied at work, according to an online survey sponsored by the Workplace Bullying Institute. Part of HR's response should be effective harassment training. Walters endorses new forms of training suggested by the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, including workplace civility and bystander training.
Employee handbooks. Your handbook is only as good as how well you apply and enforce it, so apply it consistently. "If you rarely enforce any particular policy, the day that you want to do so may likely be the day you give the appearance of adverse treatment based on an individual's protected status," Walters says.
Onboarding. Let new employees know where they fit in. Show them the organizational chart. Give them a tour of other key departments. "The more the employee understands the scope of the entire organization's processes, and not just those of his department, the more apt he is to feel part of the entire organization and understand how his work and the work of his department fits in the bigger scheme of things," Walters explains.
Finally, there's no doubt that the administrative burdens and compliance challenges that come with HR can be difficult, but Walters has some advice: Be an advocate! It doesn't have to take a lot of time. Write a letter or make a phone call. "No one knows better than you how a bill, pending regulation, or agency guidance will impact your employment practices," writes Walters, who has testified before Congress on workplace laws. "Elected officials need to hear your stories."
John Scorza is associate editor of HR Magazine.
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