What Happens When You Don’t Take Care of Problems

by Evil HR Lady on May 28, 2007

Dear E.H.R. Lady,

I love your blog! I’m hoping you’ll share your opinion on this issue. My workplace is a large non-profit organization where staff are unionized. We have an admin assistant — I’ll call her “Tina” — who is incompetent, insubordinate, and lazy. She has been this way since she was hired 10 years ago. The two managers and three directors we’ve had over the years have each been unable to help her improve her performance. She is chronically late, makes costly errors, finds any excuse to be away from the office/desk. She is inefficient and disorganized. She blames all her mistakes on other people. Not surprisingly, this has taken a toll on other staff who have to live with the consequences but are powerless to change the situation.

Each manager/director has been aware of the situation. Each has collected “documentation.” There must be a file drawer full of this stuff. A few years ago, “Tina” filed a grievance against one manager for placing a warning letter on file without asking Tina to sign it first. (The manager had received incorrect procedural advice from HR.) Tina won her grievance and the letter was removed.

Manaement seems to go through phases where they’re actively “documenting” her. They’ve had countless talks and arguments. They’ve hired assistants to do the work Tina has failed to do, paid a lot of money to fix her mistakes, brought in coaches of various kinds to try to improve her performance. There are temporary improvements and then we’re right back where we were.

The managers are all terrified of another grievance. They claim it’s impossible to fire someone because of the collective agreement. This bugs me. I like unions and what they stand for (benefits, raises, safety, vacations), and I don’t really think management has tried hard enough to get rid of this person. There’s nothing in the collective agreement that says you can’t fire someone, but you have to follow certain procedures and be very direct with the employee about what is happening. Instead, management would rather blame the union and wait for someone else to deal with the problem.

In your experience, how hard is it to fire someone in a union? What do managers do wrong in these situations and what could they do better?

Please help us! The work we’re doing is important and I think we’re at serious risk of losing good people if we can’t get rid of the bad.

Throughout the above letter, I’ve put several phrases in bold. I did this, not just to be aesthetically interesting, but to call attention to your real problem (which you already know).

The problem is not Tina. The problem is the managers.

The first clue is that Tina has been there 10 years. Each passing day makes it harder to fire someone. I presume this is even more so in a union environment, where seniority plays a key role. My argument, (if I were Tina or the Union) would be, “If I’m such a bad employee, why didn’t you fire me 10 years ago? I haven’t changed and the work hasn’t changed. Therefore, this is an unjust termination.”

It’s a valid question. Why didn’t they fire her or begin filing grievances on her first mistake? I know that seems harsh, but it’s the only way to make sure you don’t end up here–10 years down the road. The right thing to do is still to send her out the door. If what you’ve said is true–about costly mistakes and hiring coaches–then what is management scared of? If the union workers (not union leadership) is just as annoyed with Tina as you are, they aren’t going to see Tina’s termination as a rallying point.

There are procedures for firing a union person. They need to be followed. Your managers won’t do it. Why? They’ve checked out. They know they won’t be in the position forever, so they ignore it and push it onto the next person to take the job. It’s less difficult to ignore and compensate for Tina then it is to get up the guts to do something about it.

Managers, presumably, make more money than staff because they have to make the hard decisions. This means dealing with the union. Somehow, I can’t imagine the union being completely irrational. Yes, Tina filed a grievance and won. But management didn’t follow proper procedure. They need to follow proper procedure.

This does not help you in anyway, however. You (as you know) won’t win any points by documenting Tina’s behavior yourself. So, what can you do?

  • Find a new job and quit. I know, I know, you don’t want to. Which brings us to our next point.
  • Refuse to accommodate Tina any more. If she’s late, she’s late. Don’t mention it, don’t deal with it, just ignore it. Don’t help her on things she is late with. Let management feel the pain–rather than her co-workers.
  • Be nice to everyone. This is always good advice, but in this situation it is especially important. No “Tina is such a jerk” conversations. Just, “It’s too bad Tina is going to have to stay late and miss Happy Hour tonight,” said in as sympathetic manner as possible.
  • Ignore it yourself. Management is ignoring her. You try it. Right now, Tina is the proverbial little sister sitting next to you in the family station wagon. She has her fingers three milimeters from your face and when you complain she shouts, “Mom, I’m not touching her!” Ignore her. Like your little sister, she won’t go away, but she won’t be in control any more either.
  • Find a new job and quit. Hmm, that sounds familiar. Managers aren’t going to solve this problem, so take yourself out. Really. It’s not the only job out there.
  • I know this has been supremely unhelpful. That’s because the solution to Tina is not within your grasp. Be nice to Tina. Be nice to your managers. And learn to either breathe through it or leave.

    But, let this be a lesson to all you wimpy managers out there. Your other employees know who the bad apples are. It’s costing your more than the bad person’s salary. It may cost you your best workers.

{ 5 comments… read them below or add one }

Wally Bock May 28, 2007 at 6:31 pm

It is certainly possible to fire someone who is not performing, union or not. For that to happen, the person’s supervisor needs to do the non-inconsiderable work of counselling and documenting and disciplining. Then the management above the supervisor needs to be willing to act on the good work of the supervisor and terminte the slug.

Evil has laid out the situation just about as well as it can be. If your organization has let this go for ten years, you have a way bigger problem than Tina.

The best we can do now is make your organization’s situation into a cautionary tale that others can learn from. Here’s my contribution.

I instruct all my supervisor trainees in the Dinosaur Principle. Problems are like dinosaurs. They’re easy to deal with when they’re small. But if you let them grow up, they can eat you and your Land Rover.

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Working Girl May 29, 2007 at 12:54 am

Very shrewd, very wise advice, Evil HR L.

Because when it comes down to it, the only person’s behavior we can control is our own. Being told to “rise above the situation” is not always satisfying but it’s usually the best course.

Hang in there, writer. (BTW, that was a great description of the issue.)

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Mike Doughty May 29, 2007 at 12:52 pm

My expereince is all in unionized environments. I’ve been involved in a great many discharges (literally hundreds) with only two of them being overturned by arbitrators. Terminating unionized employees is almost always a matter of having the will to do so. The advice you’ve received so far here is quite correct, but I’ll add a couple points based on experience and observation, that may or may not apply to your situation.

1) Being “afraid” of a grievance. Why should anyone be afraid of a grievance? Only because the people above one are wimps and think a grievance is a sign of poor management. The easiest way to get no grievances is to do whatever the union wants. I once worked for a plant manager (one with no prior union experience) who told me that he felt our grievance load was too high and that I needed to reduce the number. I told him that I cold reduce it to any number he wanted; to zero if that was the goal. He didn’t think that was such a great idea when I pointed out to him that I could just cave-in to the union on enough items to be sure I’d reach his target. It sounds like that in your organization that precise mechanism is at work.

2) You work for a non-profit. That perhaps has a place in this situation. Accountability is harder to measure and often less an issue. The level of alturism in the mission of the non-profit may also enter into the way employees are handled. A hard-nosed manager might not go far.

3) This kind of employee problem often involves employees in a protected class. Managers have an additional level of anxiety (read fear) of doing anything in these cases, for fear of being seen as “insensitive”.

4) Management turnover. Many organizations like to rotate managers through various positions: too quickly in my opinion. Unless employee relations is a high priority in such organizations, this creates a great temptation to ignore employee problems and leave them for the next manager to worry about.

The unfortunate truth is that (as has already been pointed out) the way “Tina” is handled is highly unlikely to change, as the problems are systemic. You’ll need to continue to live with it, or leave this employer.

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Anonymous May 31, 2007 at 11:03 am

Thanks to EHRL and the other commenters. It helps to have a sympathetic ear. It’s hard to imagine leaving a job I love, especially since the public sector seems to have no shortage of situations like this. I’m going to work on my breathing for now. Part of the battle will be to stop getting so hopeful when management says they’re going to fix the problem. Thanks for listening!

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Evil HR Lady May 31, 2007 at 11:06 am

Anonymous–working on your breathing may be the best solution right now. It’s so frustrating when managers won’t do their job.

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