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EMPLOYEE RIGHTS KEY IN DISCIPLINE POLICY

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MINNEAPOLIS -- With employee rights getting greater attention from courts and mediators, employers must pay increased attention to assuring due process when disciplining workers.

"Employee rights are being honored at a higher and higher level. They have more and more options. We have to recognize that," said Eric Harvey, president of Dallas-based The Walk the Talk Co., an employee relations consultant.

In crafting a corporate approach to disciplining workers, a company must be cautious to consider how its approach will affect all of its employees, not just the problem workers the policy is meant to address, Mr. Harvey said in a presentation on "Managing Your Employees' Rights Without Giving Up Your Right to Manage" at the annual conference of the Society for Human Resource Management last month in Minneapolis.

He noted that whatever disciplinary approach a company adopts must be in keeping with the company's values.

"We have an obligation to create a value-centered approach, but we also have certain requirements to provide workplace due process," the consultant said.

Employees must know their employer's expectations and must be notified of any failure to meet those expectations. And workplace rules and regulations must be administered consistently, he said.

But establishing those rules and regulations is another occasion for caution, Mr. Harvey suggested, noting, "There tends to be an inverse relationship between how many rules an organization has and how good the culture is."

Mr. Harvey noted that when co-workers chat, the first thing they talk about is the weather. The second is some perceived injustice in the workplace. "Pay attention to that," he said.

Mr. Harvey suggested there are three tools for administering workplace due process: discipline/discharge, dispute resolution and performance appraisal.

In establishing a dispute resolution procedure, Mr. Harvey said, the critical criteria are: timely resolution, binding judgment, stakeholder involvement, external defensibility, an overall perception of fairness and a system that is in sync with organizational vision, values and mission.

The dispute resolution process can take any of several forms, such as mediation, an employee advocate or ombudsman, arbitration, or peer review. "What a lot of companies are doing now is bringing these things together," Mr. Harvey said.

Whatever method is selected, the ultimate test for the dispute resolution system is "are people using it, and do people believe it's fair?" Mr. Harvey said.

He added that the right approach addresses both what's right for the company and what's right for the employee.

And whenever employee performance issues arise, it's important that the employer's approach be problem-solving rather than punitive.

While punishment might lead to a decrease in the problem behavior in the short term, the longer-term outcome is likely to be anger, apathy or absence, Mr. Harvey said.

To successfully manage employees in the current environment, companies must eliminate punitive procedural elements and punitive behavior by supervisors, the consultant said.

That means eliminating such practices as documenting performance without talking to the employee and language like, "I'm going to have to write you up," or a "punishment fits the crime" perspective.

"The highest degree of supervisory behavior should be on recognizing good performance," Mr. Harvey said. "You have to have more than just, 'That's what you did wrong.' "

Falling below the emphasis on recognition, managers' next key activity is to coach workers for performance enhancement, then coach for problem-solving, Mr. Harvey suggested. At the very bottom of the inverted pyramid of managers' activities is formal discipline.

As a real life example of that approach, Mr. Harvey cited the work of former Chicago Bulls Coach Phil Jackson in managing the diverse elements of his highly successful basketball teams.

And he said, of companies included on lists of the world's "most admired," very few rely on punitive approaches, while far more emphasize a positive recognition-oriented tack.