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National Association of Counties • Washington, D.C.      Vol. 34, No. 17 • September 16, 2002

The H.R. Doctor Is In

Now, Where Did I Put My Brain?

Human resources has the front row, center seat, in the reviewing stand of the parade. The parade moving by, sometimes at warp speed, sometimes at a crawl, is the parade of human behavior. Certainly, this parade is centered on behavior at work. However, issues of families and off-duty behavior increasingly manifest at work.

Here are several examples about what happens when public employees appear to periodically lose their brain cells and can’t remember where they put them. Most of these have been issues in which the HR Doctor has been personally involved. Others have been contributed by colleagues in public service.

In one case, a firefighter, i.e., “a true hero,” reported for work. It was noticed by his supervisor that the chap smelled of alcohol and displayed some other symptoms of possible impairment. In this case, unlike in others, the matter was not brushed off amidst comments like “that’s just Joe” or covered up by buddies in the station. Rather, it was reported to the chief.

The chief followed agency protocol by ordering the firefighter to report to the county’s medical facility for testing to determine if drug or alcohol impairment was present. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, the chief went on to order the employee to get in his car and drive to the Hospital Emergency Room for the test.

The car in question was, of course, not just any car, but a bright red one complete with official markings, red lights, sirens, etc. In this case, only by the most amazing of miracles and a temporary suspension of Murphy’s Law, did the employee arrive at the hospital without killing innocent people. The employee failed the test — however, the fire chief should have also been ordered to immediately report for a brain scan to determine whether, in fact, his was working at the time he gave that order.

In another case, a recreation employee working with senior citizens and children had an auto accident in an agency truck. He was sent for a routine post-accident substance abuse test. He tested positive for marijuana. He repeatedly and vehemently denied that he ever used marijuana or any other drug. Having said that, however, he went on to state that in this case he used it to purge his bowels.

The union position in the pre-disciplinary hearing was that the employee should not be disciplined because the public agency had an obligation to be culturally sensitive. In this culture, the clever union representative asserted, the use of marijuana for bowel purging purposes was common.

After politely thanking the employee and union representative for their input, the HR Director, sitting alone in his office and shaking his head in amazement, put on a CD and listened for several minutes to the theme music to The Twilight Zone.

Then there was the case of the two cafeteria workers who violated the organization’s workplace violence policy by getting into an altercation in the middle of lunch, amid a very crowded group of hungry staff members waiting to be served. The altercation deteriorated to the point where the weapons of choice for cafeteria workers were brandished and used — namely, food.

The food fight which erupted, complete with rolling around on the floor, was apparently a sight to behold since it took a while for any manager in the room to finish eating before intervening to separate the combatants and implement the agency’s policies.

No matter how much energy an agency puts into distributing and conducting training on critically important policies like workplace violence prevention and intervention, there appear to be some managers, as well as employees, who are in a state of permanently being “out to lunch” even when the training was repeatedly provided.

In another case, a public works employee got so mad at the director of the agency that he threatened to go out to his car and get his gun. This well-trained and thoughtful manager responded by saying, “Oh yeah, I’ll go out to my car and get my gun!” Of course, guns are banned at the workplace, and guns in cars on agency property are also banned. This management employee represented the agency brilliantly by not only failing to defuse the threat and contact law enforcement, but by participating in the escalation of the incident to the point where other management personnel intervened and delivered a three-pound bag of sanity back into the situation.

Imagine being in a quiet residential neighborhood and finding a large 40-passenger county bus pulling into the area at night and stopping in front of one of the houses for about 40 minutes, while leaving the engine running and the lights on in the bus. Needless to say, this was not the normal route the driver was supposed to take. Nor was the brief poker game at the friend’s house an appropriate thing to do while passengers were waiting to be picked up.

Here’s one more incident, this time involving an elected official who served on an interview panel for a management position in county government. The interviewer repeatedly fell out of his chair while attempting to roll it around the room during the interviews. After twice interrupting the process to help pick up the elected official, the HR Doctor suggested a brief recess in the interview while everyone in the room composed themselves, including the candidate, who was by now thoroughly impressed with county government.

In this case, there appeared to be no substance abuse problem, no medical problem and no defective chair. This elected government leader was simply displaying an unfortunate combination of being excited about the process and being terribly clumsy. This is, of course, a dangerous combination for anyone serving in a strategic nuclear missile installation or making decisions about the future of a community and its county government.

Sadly, the HR Doctor could continue with other examples including the sheriff’s deputy who turned off his radio whenever he received a call that he did not like, or the two county employees disciplined for misusing agency property in the form of the county picnic table used for their sexual trysts while on duty. However, I won’t do that. You may submit similar “amazing tales” to the HR Doctor at

The objective of these examples is to demonstrate the clear need for continuous vigilance on the part of management, and especially human resources professionals, to be on constant guard against an outbreak of sudden agency lunacy syndrome. The best treatment for this increasingly prevalent administrative disease is prevention.

The tools of prevention are clear policies, clearly and repeatedly communicated in multiple and ongoing ways. One memo, posted on some remote bulletin board in Antarctica doesn’t do it! To be effective, this policy vaccination must be coupled with supervisory and management acknowledgment of their responsibilities to lead constant “anti-lunacy patrols,” which keep good watch on the delivery of public services.

As with other human disease syndromes, prevention does not stop every occurrence. However, without the elected officials, the city or county manager, and every employee understanding their individual personal accountability for effective behavior, the results will be wasteful and lingering, if not also sometimes tragic, funny, or just plain head-shaking amazing.

From time to time, all of us forget where we put our reading glasses, but also where we left our brains at that moment. The trick is to make sure you find your brains prior to taking actions in matters of government management. In case you have trouble locating your brains, try a phone call or visit to human resources or to the HR Doctor’s Web site. A great HR staff is a source of counseling advice as well as occasional brain transplants.

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best.

All the best,
Phil Rosenberg
The HR Doctor •