The Difficult Employee

Senyo Adjabeng / No Comments

Preparing for this article has brought out a naked truth in the trend of my publications here since 2009. In my passion to address the wrongs of the workplace and what can be done to make it better, my articles have normally hit on or focused on the Employer, who it seems is always doing one thing or the other wrong in the workplace. And that such wrongs must be corrected to make the organization better. This theme I’m afraid, runs through my articles over the years.

But today, we want to focus on the employee, who sometimes (well, to employers, all the time) is the PROBLEM. And of course, it is common to have both parties suspecting and mistrusting each other at every opportunity. Literature on employment relations shows that the relationship between employees or their representatives or both on the one hand, and employers on the other has never been and will never be as cordial as one would expect.  And the simple question of why can’t employers and employees just get along? And how hard can that be anyway? That after all, both parties have same or similar interests in the workplace, primary of which is to ‘profit’ in a cordial, safe and fair work environment.

The truth is that the employee is sometimes the problem. And yet again, it is the employer who has the burden of responsibility to ensure that the employee is not the problem, or is not problematic long enough to adversely affect the immediate environment and the business in general. How this is handled is not as simple as it may seem. It is complicated because all sorts and manner of rules, laws guidelines and policies protect the employee in the workplace. An arbitrary action from an employer in today’s workplace is not only a folly, but also suicidal in the long run.

Simply put, an organization that does not treat its workers well cannot be seen as a good social partner and corporate citizen. Hence, even when the employee is at fault, arbitrariness is not an option. Foolhardy decisions in emotional upsets and blatancy has never been good for business and is equally not good for an employment relationship.

With that said, we can now focus on when the employee is the problem and what to do about it. It is commonly believed among employers that the Ghanaian employee is lazy and unproductive.  Hence by practice, the typical Ghanaian employer adopts McGregor’s Theory X Management Style which imposes strict rules in the workplace and ensures that all important decisions are taken by the MD or CEO, simply because they see the employee as lazy, opportunistic and a constant avoider of work.

But this is a statement I have always challenged and will continue to challenge all the days of my life. This is because Ghanaians as a people are proven to be hardworking, talented and focused. The Ghanaian

is definitely not lazy but unproductive because of mostly, bad leadership, appalling supervision as well as festering gross indiscipline especially in workplace.

From my experience, the typical Ghanaian worker believes in the right to earn income/salary/pay simply because they are workers and not because they are productive. So whether they have contributed to work or not, a typical Ghanaian worker expects to be paid. A second observation is that this misguided ideology is somehow implanted in the psyche of potential employees even before they complete school and begin to work. So most students if not all, would often go looking for a salary instead of work.

Let me give you an example. I once interviewed a young lady in the year 2012 (four years ago) who was seeking to work in our firm. She was very articulate in speech and immaculate in appearance but very poor in convincing every one of her abilities. With a Diploma qualification, she was confident that she deserved a starting salary of GH¢ 1,500 Cedis and other pecks. I was not only surprised, but rather stupefied because she was blind to her weaknesses and inability to contribute effectively to the firm and only alive to what she could take home from the firm. This behaviour is typified in many young persons looking for employment today and is not only selfish but a recipe for employment disaster.

I have taken time to state perceptions about the typical Ghanaian employer as well as the employee, which then obviously explains why both will often not get along. But more importantly, the Ghanaian employee in view of the misguided expectation of remuneration as an employee and not a productive employee, results in bad attitude to work and an unexplained entitlement to ‘the position’ and ‘title’ and not necessarily ‘the job’.

Of all the vices for which employees in Ghana are accused of, it is indiscipline that I am opinionated to hold as true. From unapproved and continuous absence from work, lateness to work, leaving work before closing, refusal to obey lawful instruction, organized theft and fraud, insubordination, insolence, fighting, substance abuse, unsubstantiated demands and unfair labour practices. Of course, my list is not exhaustible and can go on and on.  I have constantly advocated that an employer only gets the kind of work environment it deserves. If they expect a disciplined and productive work environment, they get just that. And if they want a free for all environment where there is utter disorderliness, which also they can get.

But to hold employees accountable for their behaviour at work, the right, legal and fair procedure must necessarily be applied at all cost if legal complaint and suits are to be avoided. The Law is so big on fair and appropriate procedure that even if an employee is the devil himself in the workplace, any inappropriate disciplinary procedure applied to such a situation will make any termination unfair and subject to penalties of compensation or reinstatement.

Of all the Human Resources policies that organizations have, the most common are disciplinary policies that are quick to state what will happen to employees should they conduct themselves in an unapproved manner. What these policies fail to do however is to state the rights of the employees within the ambits of the disciplinary processes. Whether guilty or not, right or wrong, employees have a right to be treated fairly during disciplinary processes under fair procedures on a balance of probabilities and in accordance with the Rules of Natural Justice.

The rules of natural justice require that a person alleged to have committed an offence must be given the opportunity to be heard. This will normally involve about five different process steps that ensure that an alleged perpetrator of misconduct in the workplace is provided the full capacity to act in defense of allegations against him or her.

Since the principles of natural justice is the acceptable norm for dealing with employee discipline under Employment Law, it is necessary to progressively deal with employee indiscipline, integrating behaviour, conduct and job performance into the disciplinary process. That is why disciplinary policies must be designed to be corrective and not punitive. Indeed, most disciplinary policies will clearly state that “discipline is not intended to punish employees but to correct them or bring them in line with acceptable norms of behaviour” in the workplace

Progressive Discipline

Progressive Discipline seeks to integrate employee behaviour and job performance into the disciplinary process with the aim to assisting the employees to be or become the best they can be in the workplace. Progressive Discipline seeks to help employees to remain in the job without being kicked out. It exerts energy in ensuring that employees are assisted and to get it right always even if they get it wrong a few times. The process allows room for learning and correction of mistakes, faults, inadequacies and short comings of employees.

Progressive discipline ensures that employees account for their jobs as well as behaviours in the workplace through the evaluation of their conduct, utterances, workplace relationships, as well as job performance as an integral part of the performance management processes of the organization. Let’s move away from employee accountability and performance management for a bit and begin to look at some key issues worth mentioning when discipline is concerned.

Employee Behaviour and Conduct

One of the most common if not the most common reasons for discipline in the workplace is often based on employee conduct or behaviour. That an employee is alleged of misconduct, misbehaviour or some breach of one workplace rule or the other and hence must be disciplined. Now note that the true meaning or form of this discipline should be within the context of the employee accounting for his or her behaviour, conduct or alleged breach of workplace rules.

And where the employee falls short of acceptable behaviour, conduct and so on, is made to go through processes that seek to set him/her on the right path of behaviour or conduct. Instead, the meaning of discipline is erroneously taken to mean the employee must be punished for what he or she did. The employee even before s/he is allowed to make a statement is destined or incarcerated to punishment without the organization finding out the truth and confirming such information gathered as true.

In all cases of the administration of discipline, unacceptable behaviour or conduct in the workplace must be fully documented in codes of conduct. Codes of conduct must be brought to the full knowledge of all employees through appropriate orientation or training programmes. Penalties for breaching the codes of conduct must also be documented and brought to the full knowledge of the employees. So that where disciplinary action is to be taken against a culprit, s/he should have known that such misconduct or misbehaviour is an offence and attracts a specific penalty.

For all cases of alleged misconduct or misbehaviour, a thorough investigation must be conducted. Investigations provide for opportunities to gather enough evidence to prove or disprove specific charges preferred against an employee or assertions made by the accusers. Where an employee has admitted to committing an offence, an investigation may not be necessary.

After all conceivable evidence (both verbal and material) have been gathered, it must be pieced together to form a credible story which justifies or refutes assertions or charges made against the accused employee. When the evidence gathered is very overwhelming and corroborates assertions and accusations, a formal disciplinary hearing may be ordered. However, where there is a shred of a doubt that the employee committed the offence, the case cannot and must not be pursued. Rather, further investigation may be undertaken to gather more evidence to corroborate the charges. In the case of absenteeism, it is easy to prove.

Dealing with Difficult employees by Query

Even though I find it hard to explain why that is, queries have always been abused as a punitive tool in themselves instead of a communication tool of enquiry. You will often hear Managers or Supervisors seriously warning one employee or the other that “I will give you a query” to mean for example that “I will deal with you”. Well, I find nowhere in employee relations practice or employment law where queries are supposed to be used as penalties for misconduct. I have even come across some disciplinary codes or policies where the receipt of a specific number of queries can amount to termination of employment or other specific penalty. This is outrageous, unacceptable and professional incompetence!!!

Queries are communication tools that seek to elicit or draw out information on a particular issue from an employee who is alleged to be directly or indirectly involved or connected to the occurrence of the issue

in question. A query seeks to know the facts of a matter for appropriate management action. A query is like a charge sheet and for information and official defense purposes. Depending on an employee’s response to a query, necessary decisions are taken to rectify the perceived problems that have arisen or to further refer the matter for an official hearing. So queries can be issued under several circumstances in the workplace and not only for disciplinary purposes. That is why Supervisors and Managers must be trained to issue their subordinates with queries the right way and at the right time.

Another notorious problem with the issue of queries is when they are written as though the alleged employee has already committed the act for which s/he is being accused. For example, if in a query an HR Manager says “on such and such a day, you did such and such a thing and so explain why disciplinary action should not be taken against you”, that basically presupposes that the allegation has already been proven and the accused is proven to have committed the offence. If that is the case, then a query is useless since queries only seek to collect information about what happened and the extent to which the alleged employee was involved in the matter – whether s/he did or did not do what is alleged.

Status of the Disciplinary Committee and Procedural Fairness

Before the commencement of any disciplinary process, a judicial body normally referred to as the Disciplinary Committee must be set up. In some organizations, such committees have a number of year’s mandate which may even be renewed. However, other organizations form Adhoc Committees as and when disciplinary matters arise. The Disciplinary Committee is regarded very highly by our Ghanaian Constitution as it is the embodiment of justice in the workplace. Hence it should be balanced in its panel with equal or fair representation of the various stakeholders in the workplace. So, management would normally be represented, workers and the union if existent would also be represented.

The Committee is normally chaired by a Management representative and operates its own adopted rules and regulations including meeting times, frequency and duration of meetings, quorum, standing orders etc. The Committee is expected at law to conduct its business in a fair and judicial manner knowing that the outcome of its proceedings may adversely affect the status of persons who come before it.

When the hearing is completed, the Committee is expected to submit its report in the form of recommendations to the management of the organization. It is also expected that the Committee informs the employee or his/her representative of the outcome of the proceedings. If the employee is found culpable of the charges, the employee must be informed about his/her right to appeal against the decisions or recommendations of the Committee within reasonable time. Failure to do any of the above definitely constitutes a breach of the rules of natural justice as well as the employee’s rights to a fair procedure and justice.

An employee may be difficult. But the structures put in place will normally shape them up or shape them out of the organization. Organizations are not philanthropic places to seek shelter and make a living. It is a profit making environment where accountability must be supreme. Employees in organizations must be constantly conscientized about their roles and responsibilities in growing the organization and any deviation from that must have the most severe consequence without favour.

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