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Is an employee's behaviour the Manager's fault ?....

A Human Resources Consultant illustrates that "engagement" doesn't start at the Company level - it starts from the minute the role is created ....

Being a Human Resources Consultant means I continually advise managers on disciplinary issues. However, being acutely aware that they pay my invoices, I firmly believe this is not the point to advise on the possible reasons why the employee may be disengaged. As I have learned from my own experiences, sometimes, a period of reflection after an event is the time to observe such reasons.

I remember as HR Manager some years ago watching one of my employees amble into the office clutching a cup of Starbucks coffee. Nothing wrong with that I hear you say and surely not a disciplinary offence! However, it was day three of his employment and he was 15 minutes late for work. I was enraged by this disgraceful lack of respect towards me and his colleagues. I walked towards him and motioned him to follow me into one of the meeting rooms, sat as comfortably as one can be in these situations and proceeded to lecture him on time management, good impressions and the basic principles of being an employee. During the whole lecture, he never spoke, nor to my recollection, sipped from his polystyrene coffee cup. So, how do you positively end such a dressing down? I fired him!

At the time and for a long time afterwards, I knew in my mind this was not the job for him and he completely demonstrated it, not only by being late that morning (made later by a detour to Starbucks), but by his general attitude towards his work and lackadaisical approach to the tasks given to him. Firing this employee was the right thing to do, it was never going to get any better, he really didn’t care and leaving him to get progressively worse would impact on the wider team causing them to amble in late with coffee. Talking him through a disciplinary process was not only going to make my working week longer, legally, it was unnecessary and therefore the dismissal was the logical approach. I still tell that story to managers to illustrate why they should address poor timekeeping. 

Jump forward a few years, and after more than a few times that I used this story to illustrate this point, I have developed some self reflection. Not in handling the issue, but in developing him into a fully engaged and functioning employee.

He was recruited during a period of rapid growth for the Company I was working for. The HR Team increased from just me to six within four months. My first recruit was male, responsible for non-HR recruitment. He was energetic, had ideas, required little supervision and really pleasant with it, it’s fair to say.  I liked him and we got on well together. The next four I employed were all female, similar in age, various interests, but interested in each other and as far as I was aware, they got on professionally together and I had a good working relationship with all of them.

As the Company had continued to grow, there were tasks and functions within the team which were not getting done. Having collated these, they appeared to loosely take 40 hours per week and so I had created his role. But really, what I created was 40 hours worth of tasks and responsibilities that were not really related to each other, had no specialism and quite honestly the stuff that the rest of the team didn’t want to do. Still, he applied for the role, was recruited, by me, and started.

There is no doubt in my mind even today that this guy did not really want the job, he had no interest in it, but actually, the experiences of the next two days probably only led to speed-up his disengagement.

From the conception of the role to recruiting him was so fast that a desk was pulled in from another office and ‘shoved’ in the corner as there was not enough power supply to locate him closer to the rest of the Team. Sadly, due to the configuration of the desk, he had his back to everyone.

By the time he was recruited, the rest of the Team had been together for a few months, and idle chat regarding their weekends on a Monday morning was acceptable and didn’t dominate too much time. However, even I was taken aback when the Newbie, of five minutes, spun around on his chair, interrupted one of the ladies’ stories, just to inform everyone how his weekend went. You could hear the desert-like tumbleweed sounds passing through the office. I can’t even pin-point what it was exactly that caused the long silence, but may be it was just how familiar he was with everyone, the fact he was so brutally rude to interrupt a colleague, or, most likely the content of the drink-fuelled story he had just shared with these HR professionals.

As it happened, five minutes in was the point that any new HR employee would be given an introduction to the building and the Team knew it. The only thing was, no-one wanted to take him around the building, because they wanted to be left with the remaining four to talk about him whilst he was gone!

So, he finally came back from being shown the building - by me I’d like to add - and both he and I heard the HR Team talking about him. This meant they all felt a little bit awkward when showing him each of the tasks assigned to him, so they rushed through it, which meant he didn’t quite understand everything, resulting in him feeling too awkward to ask for help, so he made a lot of mistakes. That was the quietest, most painful Monday I ever had in that office.

Whatever had happened, I was determined to make Day Two a more positive experience for this Newbie. Best laid plans…

Most of the Team got in early and as each of them did, they started to check the work the Newbie had done the day before.  As each of them checked, they obviously felt compelled to highlight the mistakes he had made (something I always advocate to iron out repeated errors). However, slowly but surely, pretty much all of them had shown him something he’d done wrong and he was not taking it well, and I wondered if he was trying to find a way to demonstrate his suitability to HR.

During the course of the afternoon, one of the ladies was phoning some advice to a manager; the Newbie turned around and started to tell her (whilst she was on the phone) the procedural errors she was making. Here I’d like to point out that common within HR there are occasions when someone believes a Company policy of their last firm to be Law, when in fact it’s just a policy. This was one such occasion. I was furious, not only did he think this acceptable, he did it so openly in the office, whilst a manager was on the line, when he was only hearing half the conversation and he was completely wrong. I shouted at him to turn back around and be quiet. It was at the end of the day when I pulled him to one side and in no uncertain terms told him not to do that again. Was I rude? Yes I was. Did I leave it too long to discuss this with him? Absolutely. Would I have fired him the next day whether he’d made himself late at the coffee stop or not? More than likely.

I’ll still dine out on that story and use it as a reason to address employee timekeeping, but between us, the one thing I learned out of that whole experience, is that engagement doesn’t start at the Company level, it starts from the minute the role is created. If the role is not an engaging one, the incumbent in it will never be - and you won’t attract the right talent.


Freeman Richard Cummings