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HR issues – where informal beats formal interventions

Some people will avoid formal HR processes like the plague, others embrace them too readily. Both avoidance and overindulgence creates issues and our article covers a real example of where a shorter informal solution was much more effective.

Some people will avoid formal HR processes like the plague, others embrace them too readily. Both avoidance and overindulgence creates issues.  Most HR processes follow a similar and sensible pattern:

  1. A pre-process assessment of the facts or event e.g. an investigation
  2. A meeting of some sort with the employee concerned to discuss the matter and establish a course of action
  3. The communication of an outcome
  4. An opportunity for the employee to challenge the outcome

Depending on the process, some paperwork for each stage might be necessary for the purposes of clarity and to leave a record. In a disciplinary process for example we would expect to see a written investigation summary; a letter setting up the disciplinary and appeal hearings and an outcome letter for each stage.

The often underused stage of pretty much every HR process is the informal stage, and it is here that 90% of issues should be sorted out. Managers who plunge straight into formal stages (except in the case of more serious issues) are likely to be causing more issues than they’re resolving.  I recently had cause to suggest to a client’s manager that rather than taking formal statements regarding an issue of inappropriate horseplay, he speak to the individual (and those on the receiving end), reset the expectations and take him through the dignity at work policy.

The manager concerned had detected the issue, and gone straight into formal statement taking as a precursor to disciplinary action. By ignoring the informal route to resolution he risked alienating his employees, lowering morale and ultimately increasing turnover. Part of being a ‘manager’ is, as the title suggests, managing situations to deliver improvement or to maintain performance. In most cases, skilful management interventions take very little time and should produce quick results. Taking the instant case of inappropriate horseplay we recommended:

  • Speaking to the employee concerned about the alleged behaviours & the problems they cause and ask for an explanation
  • Gain an agreement from the employee that the behaviours will stop
  • Take the employee through the Dignity at Work procedure and ask them to sign a declaration that in future they will comply
  • Consider a letter of concern (myHRdept will prepare) or simply a note on file
  • Where the intervention resulted from a complaint from another employee, consider a joint meeting to bring closure, or communicate the action taken and commitments given to the complainant
  • Check later (with the complainant) that the behaviours complained of have stopped.

In total these actions should add up to no more than an hour’s management input. A formal disciplinary process by contrast will involve several hours and considerably more paperwork.

Managers who cannot use informal interventions effectively will be less effective at managing people. Effective informal interventions though do require a level of skill, planning and confidence and whilst it comes naturally to some, others needs to be trained.

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