No-Shows Aren’t Just for Debates

How should HR handle employees who refuse to come to meetings or work?

By Allen Smith, J.D. Jan 29, 2016
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Donald Trump isn’t the only one to stage a no-show: Employees do it at work all too often. So how should HR respond?

What if an employee skips a meeting after encouraging co-workers to skip it as well, saying that the manager is a “total jerk”? Or, what if a worker says he isn’t attending a meeting because the manager “yammers away” and treats minorities badly?

Before disciplining a worker for that sort of behavior, consider this: The worker may be engaged in concerted activity protected by the National Labor Relations Act, cautioned Maria Greco Danaher, an attorney with Ogletree Deakins in Pittsburgh.

She compared these examples to a case involving a Facebook post in which an employee bad-mouthed a manager over working conditions and then was fired. In cases such as this, the board has said the employee was engaged in the protected activity of trying to make working conditions better. So, before disciplining someone for skipping a meeting, it may pay to first investigate why the employee missed it.

If a worker refuses to attend a meeting because she doesn’t want to stay late, or she fails to show up at work because it’s the day before a vacation, this amounts to insubordination, Danaher added.

But sometimes employees don’t want to come to work because they can’t stand a co-worker. Telecommuting might be an option in some instances. Is the request for telecommuting because someone at work smells bad? Maybe it’s something much more serious; perhaps the worker saw a colleague looking at inappropriate or upsetting pictures on a computer, she said. Delving deeper into the person’s reason for not showing up to work or for a specific work obligation may uncover a larger problem.

“Good HR managers get at the underlying reasons,” Sonya Rosenberg, an attorney with Neal, Gerber & Eisenberg in Chicago, said. “If an employee suddenly refuses to come into work, you want to find out why.” Phone the employee who refuses to come to work and, if necessary, follow up with any colleagues that the employee has a problem with.

Disciplinary Meetings

Managers sometimes are the ones who don’t want to be at meetings—particularly when meetings involve discipline, which can cause uncomfortable confrontation. But it’s important that both managers and HR attend any meetings that do involve discipline.

“Sometimes, a manager will leave the difficult or hard meetings to HR to handle in situations dealing with discipline or a delicate matter,” noted Robbin Hutton, an attorney with FordHarrison in Memphis, Tenn. “It is always preferred to have the employee’s manager present for these discussions, so that the employee recognizes the importance of the issue, that there is unity in the decision and that the decision is being appropriately made.”

It’s also important for HR to be present as a witness and to guide the managers, Rosenberg said. “Meetings can be tough. They can be unpleasant. But it’s necessary for HR to be present.”

Allen Smith, J.D., is the manager of workplace law content for SHRM. Follow him @SHRMlegaleditor.

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