Saturday, November 12, 2011

Disciplining Staff

The knives seem to be out for Joe Paterno.  We are rapidly learning about all of his shortcomings; things that were known for years, but no one was able to speak up, because of  the mysterious power that he possessed at Penn State.   We now know that he used off-colour language; told the odd tasteless joke; refused to retire when asked. Wow! Forget the good things he might have done: visiting kids in the hospital, contributing to the library, encouraging athletes to study.  He's now a target.

Maybe he knew more about the child molestation scandal at Penn State than we know.  Or maybe he heard rumours or noticed that his assistant coach, Jerry Sandusky,  was too attentive to young boys.  But rumours, denied; or a coach being interested in young boys are not enough to file a police complaint.  What do you usually do in these situations?  Maybe talk to the employee, sound him out, give some advice, and discuss with your superior.  In this case, Sandusky initially left his coaching position.  Later, when more serious charges became known, Paterno referred the matter to the athletic director.  Obviously, from what's now happening, he should have done more.

We had a wellness program at my workplace.  Ideally, staff and management worked together to promote a healthy environment.  From the standpoint of physical health, it worked well.  We had little illness due to colds or flu or "calling in sick"; by far the greatest problem was stress.  Sometimes staff had personal/relationship problems at home; sometimes conflicts arose in the workplace; sometimes underlying, emotional/psychological problems were triggered. We could refer staff to an occupational health doctor, if we felt that their conduct  warranted it.

A fellow who worked at a downtown district office once complained to me that he didn't like working with social service clients; that he found it stressful.  I offered him a position in our accounting office, thinking this might suit him better.  A mistake.  John soon transferred his stress to others, who became uncomfortable working with him, because of his erratic behaviour.  He once stormed into my office just before lunch, handed in his resignation, on the grounds that he could no longer work with his co-workers, because their standard of performance was too low.  Maybe I should have accepted it; but after lunch,  he came back and sheepishly asked for his letter back, and I gave it to him.  Eventually staff became concerned whether they were safe and started to turn their desks around, so that they could watch the door, in case he totally lost it.  We sent him to occupational health for evaluation, were told that he wasn't dangerous, and that we should be more "sensitive" to his needs.  Finally, when he put his supervisor on four months stress leave, my manager drew the line, kicked John out, and told Personnel to place him somewhere else.  The point of this is that employees in public service positions have quite a few rights, and it is not a simple thing to discharge an employee without good cause, once they have passed a probationary period.       

Over the years, I saw that an employee would be charged and fired for stealing money.  Other offenses more or less had to be endured until a series of incidences indicating unsuitability for the job were established.  This  process included a letter of expectations, coaching, written reprimand, and suspension, before someone could be discharged.  Usually, the problem employee would adjust or find other employment before this played out.

Maybe we'll find out that Paterno was more interested in "protecting the Penn State brand" than doing the right thing.  The list of people I've stuck up for also includes Al Campanis, Jimmy "The Greek" Snyder, and Helen Thomas, all of whom said "dumb" things, and lost their jobs; but I thought were victims of  "political correctness" and should have been allowed to explain themselves after some reflection.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Workplace Misconduct

After forty-six years on the job, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno is fired, because he failed to report to the police alleged sexual abuse of young boys by an assistant no longer working under him.  Apparently, he did report the situation to his superior, the athletic director.  Maybe there's more to it, but this seems a bit harsh.

What do you normally do when you become aware of improper/possibly illegal conduct in the workplace?  You evaluate the source and bring it to the attention of your superior.  He may or may not act on it; but how far does your responsibility go if he doesn't?  Do you go to his boss?  Do you go to Human Resources?  When do you take it upon yourself to contact the police?

Over the years, I've witnessed lots of improper conduct.  Not assaults on children, but claims of sexual harassment,  prohibited sexual use of e-mail, violations of  labour laws, dishonest competitions, etc.  I've taken these up with my superior.   He, in turn, may take them up with his superior, with personnel, or ignore them.  Doing more may invite some risk.

A co-worker once complained to me that she wasn't being paid overtime for hours worked in a week after forty-eight, as required by the Ontario Hours of Work Act.  I asked my boss about it and was told it was none of my business.  I brought it to the attention of the Employment Standards Branch of the Ministry of Labour, who said they didn't believe me, and only the victim could file a complaint anyway.  I contacted the Canadian Labour Congress about union representation and told the staff what was going on.  I was fired, although my employer said that I quit.  I was disqualified from receiving unemployment insurance benefits for having "quit".  It may seem humorous today, but filing complaints is a tricky business.

I've participated on employment interview panels, where it was obvious that a candidate had been given  answers in advance.  I once brought this to the attention of my boss, making him quite unhappy, because the person in question was the best friend of his assistant, who had typed the questions.  A waste of time, but it was a public service position.            

Claims of unwanted sexual attention are usually dealt with by a discussion with the parties involved, some direction as to future conduct, and possibly a reprimand.  They are not always clear cut; one party pleads innocence; and they end up being monitored for future behaviour.

Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain insists that four complaints of sexual harassment brought against him are all false, and that he can't recall the incidents, although there were financial settlements in two of the cases.  Those coming forward are now subject to additional harassment and hate mail.  Making any form of  negative allegation against those in more powerful positions is always perilous. They tend to be believed or the issue is dismissed to the accuser's detriment.

So we'll see what happens to Joe Paterno.  If he didn't report the situation when he first knew about it, he would be failing his responsibility and deserves to be fired.  But if he reported it and trusted others in higher positions to follow through, I have sympathy for him..