Imus Dismissal: Some Considerations Regarding Policy Enforcement

Bart Castle SPHR
May 9, 2007 — 2,093 views  
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Imus Dismissal: Some Considerations Regarding Policy Enforcement In recent weeks, the national flap over comments made by radio host, Don Imus, has provided HR managers and company senior leaders an opportunity to reexamine the challenges of enforcing employment-related policies. And, in this specific case, the challenges present regarding the enforcement of policies when such policies have been violated by a high performing, highly regarded (or both) employee are also apparent. After all, the merit and reality of whether a policy is in fact the way in which specified action is to occur is determined by how an organization responds when it is violated not what the policy documents says when it is issued. Policies can be written so that they say whatever is necessary to appear appropriate. However, for over 50 years communication research has consistently demonstrated that what one (or in this case an organization) says (or writes) only accounts for 7 – 10% of the message. On the other hand, what one does nonverbally in support of, or in conflict with, what was said (or written) is what people believe IS actually true. That is why investigations involve interviews and lawsuits depositions. What the policy says is there for anyone who chooses to read it. When a violation occurs, we ask the questions to determine whether or not the actions of the person or the organization demonstrate that what the policy says is actually occurring in every day organizational life. It is the behavior of the leaders of the organization, especially during times of adversity or controversy, NOT the words of the Employee Handbook, which demonstrate what the policies actually are AND who is and is not subject to the policies. Virtually, if not all, HR professionals and organizational leaders alike are going to say, “We must make certain policies are enforced on a consistent basis.” There are prudent reasons for making such statements. Yet, the practical truth is policies are not consistently enforced in organizations – and there are some practical reasons for that as well – whether we choose to admit it openly or not. The salesperson who sells six times the volume sold by his or her co-workers is going to get some leeway his or her lesser selling co-workers will not get. The Imus comment did not invent that reality – it simply brought it to light. Historically, Imus had been permitted to make controversial comments and conduct himself in a manner, a new performer in Smalltown USA or an even a lesser CBS affiliate simply, would not have been allowed to do. It is a virtual certainty some of his comments in earlier years violated policies. Yet, his contribution to the bottom-line apparently was deemed to outweigh the risk of his having violated the policy and being allowed leeway regarding such violation. Perhaps emboldened by such leeway, his comments continued largely unchecked until they so violated policy and public tolerance, action had to be taken. Based on the reality of this inconsistent enforcement, several key questions are important for the organizations endeavoring to enforce policies as effectively as possible, without simply throwing around pat answers. Questions for consideration include, though are not limited to: • When the policy was drafted, or revised, what was done to increase the likelihood that the language of the policy includes the greatest numbers of employees? For example, absolute prohibitions may sound great to HR. But, is the Vice President of Operations really going to enforce a zero tolerance policy? Be careful about answering the question with pat, HR speak or legalese. Zero tolerance policies, while admirable and likely appropriate, especially on issues such as harassment will almost immediately present situations where “Zero” is tested. A key element of zero tolerance policies is definition. What has been done to ensure that every individual’s “zero” is the same (see note below)? • Are, at least the highest levels of the organization clear about which individuals might get special consideration AND can why such consideration might occur be documented (if need be)? Consideration is not the same thing as wanton disregard, closing one’s eyes to problems, or simply ignoring. While such knowledge typically does not exist in the form of a list, “Individuals who are not governed by Policy A,” it needs to be clear, even if informal. Are there employees with Employment Contracts which contain differing provisions or specific definitions regarding what constitutes “for cause dismissal” differing from those of employees not covered by such contracts? Does practical experience suggest some individuals’ production is at such levels that they will get some special consideration? If so, can the difference in their performance or contribution from that of their co-workers be documented? Too often, we hear clients say, “Well, we treat him/her a bit differently because of what they produce.” Yet, when pushed to convincingly demonstrate (read document) the veracity of the statement, they are unable to do so. Finally, are there some topics where consideration will occur and others that actually apply to ever employee at every level? At a minimum, are the managers clear regarding the enforcement levels of each policy? If the answer is “Yes,” how has that understanding on the part of the managers and their subordinates been verified? • What is being done to ensure that managers and employees (at all levels) understand what the behaviors behind, at a minimum, the key policies (e.g. anti-harassment, anti-discrimination, ethical conduct, non-disclosure, etc.) look and feel like in every day organizational life? Again, be careful about dismissing the question with an easy answer. In the values-neutral world we’ve created, what is clear to one individual may not be clear to another. Even before the values-neutral conversation began a decade ago, language was relative and subject to interpretation. For example, ask ten employees to picture something as defined as a car. Do they all see the same car? Change that and make the statement, “Employees are to behave in an ethical manner.” If they did not all come up with the same picture on something as defined as a “car” the notion of behaving in an “ethical” manner is going to produce even greater disparity in employee’s thinking and conduct. The reason policies are so often misinterpreted or interpreted very differently, even by well-intended managers and employees, is that organizations fail to take into account the significance of clear definition, choosing instead to assume key elements or terms of the policy are clear. Don Imus provided organizations a great opportunity to look at their policies and their policy enforcement processes. The next time your organization is faced with a policy violation, whether large or small, nationally visible or largely unseen, highly placed, exempt or lower level, non-exempt employee what message will the enforcement send to your employees?

Bart Castle SPHR


Bart W. Castle, of the Sapio Group, LP, has been involved in virtually all facets of human resource management over the past two decades.