Competencies at Work: Taking a Stand for the Right Choice

How Ethical Practice and other competencies helped resolve an ongoing conflict

By Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP January 10, 2019
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​The workplace situations we face as HR professionals will often challenge us and stretch our knowledge, skills and abilities. We may need to apply more than one competency to navigate through these challenges. This is the story of how, early in my career, I made use of many of the behaviors now defined in the SHRM Body of Competency and Knowledge (SHRM BoCK) to make a recommendation for a path forward out of a difficult situation. I took a stand for what I believed was the right choice. 

The HR manager who oversaw one of our manufacturing facilities called me to report that the entire plant workforce was going to walk out, due to ongoing conflicts with the plant manager. I spoke with leadership, and we decided that I needed to go to the facility and investigate. 

While at the facility, I used my Consultation skills to conduct a thorough investigation over three days, interviewing more than 40 employees, contractors and others. The plant manager was interviewed as well, to ensure that we had both sides of the story. 

The results of the investigation yielded more than 40 allegations against the plant manager, including retaliation; bullying; theft; threats; forced overtime; workers' compensation cover-up; hostile work environment; and race, sex and pregnancy discrimination. The list went on and on. 

The investigation also revealed that the workforce and plant manager had been in conflict for decades. The employees had tried to unionize the plant years earlier because of these issues, which remained unaddressed. Morale in the facility was at an all-time low. Turnover had increased. Despite this, the plant continued to be very successful for the corporation and made millions of dollars. The plant manager had been with the organization for close to 30 years and was politically connected to those at the top. 

I was tasked with developing a recommendation for the vice president of HR to address the situation. Thanks to my Business Acumen, I understood the short-term impact that removal of a plant manager could have on operations; I also understood the long-term impact of allowing the current situation to continue. I undertook a Critical Evaluation of the facts and the findings of the investigation and utilized my skills in Communication, Relationship Management and Leadership & Navigation to formulate a recommendation and present it to the vice president. 

My recommendation was to terminate the plant manager. Politics, however, began to take hold in the organization against my recommendation. I was an early-career HR professional—what should I do? 

I felt strongly that Ethical Practice should prevail in the plant and throughout the organization. So I decided to put my own job on the line. The plant manager would go, or I would resign. I made it clear that I was unwilling to stay with an organization that would allow the type of behavior exhibited by the plant manager to continue at any level. 

The right choice was made. The plant manager was terminated, and I remained at the organization. The plant continues to operate successfully. I eventually left to move my career forward. When I look back, I can see that of all the HR competencies I used to navigate through the process and the politics of the situation, Ethical Practice was the most important. 

In every course I teach today, I remind my students to act ethically and do the right thing. Being an HR professional often requires courage and conviction. 

Matthew W. Burr, SHRM-SCP, owner of Burr Consulting LLC, in Elmira, N.Y., is an HR consultant, an assistant professor at Elmira College, and an on-call mediator and fact-finder for the New York State Public Employment Relations Board. He holds master's degrees in business administration and in human resources and industrial relations and has a Lean Six Sigma Green Belt.

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