Can we give employees too much information?

I went to see a nutritionist this morning as I wanted some advice on my diet.  I spent 90 minutes talking about managing blood sugar levels, the impact antibiotics have on the gut, how the kinesthetic approach to  food tolerance testing works, and how stress impacts the digestive system.

This afternoon, I can’t remember any of the science behind her recommendations, but all I know is that I’m to abstain from all caffeine (coffee and diet coke feature a lot in my diet), eat more nuts and seeds, go wholemeal, eat a little less red meat and a little more white meat.

In my case, it doesn’t really matter how much of the science  I do or don’t remember, I’m clear about what my actions are.  But is this always the case with employees who are going through some kind of formal procedure?

I’ve been supporting two friends recently as they have been under threat of dismissal (one for gross misconduct, the other due to redundancy).  It’s been interesting being on the other side of the fence, seeing how hard it is for an employee to navigate the formal procedures we use in HR.

In the redundancy situation there were so many different options for my friend that it just confused the issue.  My cynical mind thinks that the organisation used my friend’s confusion to their benefit, trying to persuade her to take a voluntary severance (VS) over what appeared to be a clear case (to me) of compulsory redundancy.  Obviously, the VS package was the cheaper option for the organisation.  The more questions my friend asked (following our conversations), the more information she received. Even for me, it felt like wading through treacle at times.

In the other case, the employee hadn’t realised what the allegations were that had been made against her when she was suspended.  Having reviewed the documentation she received, they did inform her – but she just hadn’t heard or understood.  Despite being supported by her union, she was given very little information on what was happening to her, what the next steps were, and how she could best prepare.

When I’m talking to employees I try to give them the full picture , including the worse case scenario.  If employees are going through organisastional change, I tell them from the start of the process that it might end in redundancy.   I inform witnesses in disciplinary investigations that their interview notes or statements might end up being public documents should the case get to an Employment Tribunal.  I think it’s important, so that employees can prepare themselves and make the right decisions based on the long-term view.

But how much do employee’s really take on board when we bombard them with this information at a difficult and stressful time in their employment?  Whilst we might follow-up any conversation in writing, do employees really read the finer details?  How much more should an employer do once it’s met its legal implications?

There is the argument that employees have their trade union representative who can support them in such instances.  However, in my experience, the quality and experience of the union support is variable.  There are some great union reps, and others who I feel miss the point and confuse the issues – and it’s the employee that suffers.

Another approach is to keep on re-iterating the key information to the employee(s) concerned.  I could be wrong, but I’ve never heard of an employee tribunal being lost due to an employee being given too much information.

In the centre of all this is the need to consider each employee as an individual.  Each employee reacts to their situation differently.  In cases of gross misconduct, some staff show remorse whilst other don’t when faced with similar scenarios.  The threat of redundancy can be a positive or negative experience for employees -depending on their personal circumstances.

What I have learnt over the years is that it is impossible to pre-judge an employee’s reaction to redundancy or other dismissal situations.  I’ve also observed that employee’s will tell us when they’ve “got it” and will keep on asking questions when they haven’t.

And if an employee is still asking questions…….. the organisation hasn’t yet given them enough information.


When is theft a sacking offence?

Back in the day I worked in an HR department of a well-known retail group.  I was young, enthusiastic and it was in this environment that I first learnt how to give advice on Employee Relations.  Working from HQ, I was the “Employee Relations Advice Line” for 2 days week.  Store managers would call with their employee problems and I would provide sage advice on how to resolve them.

I had a range of interesting cases:

  • An employee was numerically dyslexic (Dyscalculia).  She had been in charge of the shoe section for the last four months and in that time they had thrown away A LOT of odd pairs.
  • A cook in one of the restaurants (the one nearest my house at the time) turned up for work with an acute case on conjunctivitis
  • An employee who had brought the firm into disrepute by flashing her bra to the builders on the building site next door whilst she was in the staff room having her tea break.

However, the most common issue was theft.  Employees would be “sacked” for stealing a penny.  Whilst that might be extreme, the organisation took any theft seriously.  If every employee stole a penny every day, the company would lose £22k per day.  Or over £8 million a year.

The other day I was reminded of my experiences working in retail when I was discussing the issue of employee theft with a couple of NHS HR Managers.  The way we manage theft in the NHS is very different.  I think it’s because the type of cases we see, for example:

– a play specialist invented  the day trips and activities she had done with her patient groups and claimed for the expenses incurred.  This went on for two years before management discovered there was an issue.

– another care worker received a number of very large, very generous money gifts (in the form of a cheque) from a vulnerable patient who frequented the clinic on a regular basis.

– an employee who was stealing from her colleagues – £10 from a purse, a stereo, sandwiches from the fridge (can you believe it?)

– a nurse who stole non-controlled drugs to fuel a drug-habit.  (see footnote for explanation of non-controlled drugs)

In all these cases, there is no simple scenario of “one time, x took 2p from the till and hasn’t returned it yet”.  The cases are complex, and often only came to light some time after the initial event occurred.  Frequently initial investigations show that there is limited robust, concrete evidence and much rests on connecting a series of events.

Such cases often turn out to be lengthy and detailed investigations and if done well, reach the appropriate conclusion.  They are handled in a completely different way to how I would have advised a manager working in a shop.  But I think that each case has to be handled according to an organisation’s culture.

On the day of the discussion with my two HRMs, we were debating whether a cleaner who had “stolen” a bottle of industrial size bleach should be sacked for gross misconduct.  She admitted the misconduct as soon as it was discovered, had mitigation and was willing to pay the Trust back equivalent to the amount of bleach used.

Two of us felt it wouldn’t be a “sacking” offence, and the other believed that “Theft is theft”.

What do you think?


Foot note:  uncontrolled drugs are those which are not subject to “control” procedures (eg in locked cabinets, audited etc) by the nursing staff.  These include drugs that you can buy over the counter – eg Paracetamol, or slightly stronger – eg Codeine Phosphate.