Computer says discipline

This is a story about a friend of mine. She has worked for a major high street retailer for 25 years. Her service record is unblemished. Her sickness levels are almost nil for her entire tenure, save for an operation a few years ago. She is never late. She gets excellent feedback from customers. Once, when it snowed badly and the roads were blocked, she trudged the four miles to work so she didn’t miss a day. She’s the takes pride in what she does, extra mile, discretionary effort, above and beyond sort of employee. She is engaged. You know, that thing we are supposed to be striving for.

A couple of weeks ago, my friend had her performance review. An issue was raised. It was treated very seriously. She had entered an item incorrectly on her till. The till had balanced. The right amount of money went in. But the item in question was coded incorrectly so it looked like someone had purchased, for example, an orange rather than an apple. The value in question? One whole pound.

My friend was formally counselled about her error. A note was placed on her personnel file. She was formally notified that if she made such a serious error again, she would be subject to disciplinary proceedings up to and including dismissal.

Now maybe someone is going to come along and tell me that what looks like a small mistake is really more important than it seems to me. Maybe I am missing something. But this is the sort of HR approach that I loathe. The tick boxing, treat everyone the same, parent child, leave your common sense at home kind of HR, and line management. Because this is the process, the policy, the precedent. And we must follow it. Because HR said so. This is the form they’ve said we must complete and put on the file, and this is the statement that we must say, irrespective of the individual, the situation, the circumstance.

The result in this case? A very upset, disengaged and demotivated employee. An employee who might just leave because she is fearful of making another mistake. Fearful of being disciplined.

I know what part of the role of HR is to write policy, devise processes. I know that we have to provide guidance to line managers on how to deal with their people issues. We often talk of strategic, value add HR. Richard Westney recently wrote a blog post about rising above the mediocre. About being forward thinking and using everything available to us to be so. I agree with him. But rising above the mediocre also means challenging this sort of HR. Challenging the ‘policy says discipline’ mentality. Encouraging our managers to do the right thing, not just the bog standard process thing.

We can be different, if we choose to be, if we are brave enough.

Let HR lead the way.

6 thoughts on “Computer says discipline

  1. It could be that this is how your friend’s org treats these things all the time but it often comes as a symptom of ‘it’s coming up to year end, every penny counts, let’s move into full-on command and control mode to make sure we hit the numbers’.

    And then, guess what, as you’ve described, engagement drops, customer service drops and sales drop!

    It’s also a symptom of the fear of the grey – but if we do x for one person we must do x for the other.

    Grey is scary for a lot of people – black and white feel much more safe and comfortable. So there’s a big responsibility on HR to embrace the grey themselves so they can help managers do the same.

  2. Putting the HR into harassment. Don’t you just hate that small minded nonsense. Guy in NZ got sacked recently for stealing a blank DVD from his employer. HR must be very proud of that!

  3. It’s hard in HR sometimes when you want to factor all of that in. And it should balance at the review. Unfortunately in the litigation world we live in, to write one up for the offence and not another could lead to discrimination lawsuits. If you have ever been on the wrong end of one, even when you aren’t wrong! You realize EVERYONE has to be treated the same at the time of incident. This HR person should have looked at that one incident and praised her for only having one the entire year and moved on!

  4. Helen hits the nail on the head. People really have lost their way. Always doing the same thing to everybody in the same way might even be reasonable IF everybody was the same. This is management by fear and just another form of bullying. Sure, we bully everybody the same. Whats the problem? One day this person may feel a degree of shame for their part in that HR car crash.

    I wonder what the penalty might have been for exercising a degree of common sense to the next in line manager? Ten lashes? That fear flows all the way up to the people that probably don’t know how to manage and nurture quality staff. This is probably why working hard for small organisations can be so much fun.

    It should remind us of a need to interview well for jobs and carefully match people to the culture you want in your organisation. You reap what you sow.

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