The controversial and subsequently reversed decision by the BBC to discipline Breakfast presenter Naga Munchetty over a comment about Donald Trump has been covered widely in the press over the past couple of weeks. On top of the questions around racism the story has raised, it has also shone a light on the problems with rigid HR procedures.
There are times when an employee’s behaviour breaches a business’s code of conduct so significantly that disciplinary action or dismissal can’t be avoided, but how can employers make sure the HR process is fair?
HR should be human
The saga has highlighted the limits of process-driven response. Yes, technically she broke a rule, but HR adds value by understanding the bigger picture. HR professionals need to ask themselves: what led to the rule being broken in the first place?
In Munchetty’s case, the punishment was too extreme, and the situation should perhaps have been approached more sensitively. Rather than allowing resentments to grow with an aggressive knee-jerk intervention, the employee has the right to have their side of the story heard. You may find they bring you round to their point of view.
When an employee does need to be reprimanded, the aim is to correct and build on their behaviour so they can improve and thrive at work going forward. Though written warnings are often the second stage in disciplinary action, it’s best to keep things on a verbal level for as long as possible.
Put your employee’s wellbeing first
It goes without saying that all businesses need to action a zero-tolerance policy against racism. In the case of Munchetty, it’s arguable that perhaps instead of reading out the rule book, the BBC should instead have been protecting its employee for doing the right thing.
Mayor of London Sadiq Khan recently tweeted that “no one should be ‘impartial’ when it comes to racism”. Take a more client-driven business as an example; if a client behaved in a threatening way towards a member of staff, the business leader should still protect and defend their employee, even if, in doing so, they lose that client. The same logic should have applied in Munchetty’s case.
Use alternative methods of resolution
Rather than having overly formal disciplinary processes as your default, there are other ways to resolve a dispute with an employee. For example, instead of suspending a worker, consider asking them to write a statement that outlines their thoughts on the situation. This can feel a bit back-to-school but it’s actually a useful way for them to reflect on their actions and suggest solutions. It can then be used as the foundation for a discussion with HR to help understand what went wrong.
HR teams can also consider bringing in a qualified mediator to assist with conflicts between employees. Mediators can help with discussions by establishing an outcome for both sides. This approach to settling things can be a helpful way to make a worker feel heard and tackle the root cause of conflict.
A happy medium
Of course, there are times where formal procedures are the only avenue, and informal policies and procedural guidelines between employees and employers can lead to a lack of accountability. When allegations are made, the most important thing a HR professional must do is remain objective. As an employer, you have a duty of care, not only to the person who has made the allegation, but also the person on the other side of the claims.
Creating a happy and collegiate workplace, where employees feel valued, plays a huge role in performance and motivation levels. Get this right and misconduct is unlikely to happen. After all, prevention is better than cure. Make your staff feel valued, and there should be no reason to take disciplinary action in the first place.
Jamie Mackenzie is director of marketing at Sodexo Engage