When workplace procedures are followed, and common sense is not

Imagine that you have had an argument with a work colleague that led to a “fact finding” interview with HR and a verbal reprimand then and there. It leads you to realise that you might have given offence, even if the colleague had been oversensitive in taking it. In turn, you decide to apologise to your colleague for having done so. Closure, surely.

Would you then expect, two working days later, to receive an HR missive on company letterhead about this “incident”, summoning you to a disciplinary hearing on barely 24 hours’ notice and stating “the outcome of this meeting could potentially lead to your employment with the company being terminated”?

Now imagine you are the employer. How would you feel about your HR manager escalating matters like that, and putting your company at risk of an unfair dismissal claim (actual or constructive) via an overreaction that might lose you a valuable employee?

When we stepped in on an employee’s behalf in a situation like this not long ago, we ensured that the company stopped the disciplinary process in its tracks and withdrew the letter. But this was achieved only after the HR manager had sought to justify it with claims that the letter was “just a standard template”, and that the disciplinary meeting was needed to document the issues in case the oversensitive colleague ever made a complaint against the company at some point in future.

Does this not seem to be taking “cover yourselves” to extremes, with little regard for the law of unintended consequences, or indeed for the effect on the morale and loyalty of someone you would never have wanted to lose but who might now look for greener grass elsewhere because of the insensitive treatment?

Procedures, especially those set out in HR manuals or suggested via external HR helplines, may often dictate the need to be seen to be doing something. But common sense, which an experienced solicitor can readily call upon in providing advice, may lead more wisely to “least said, soonest mended”. Always worth a thought before choosing the HR helpline.


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