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October 04, 2004
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The HR Doctor Is In

Pain Management

In public administration, as in the practice of medicine, there are chronic issues which sometimes defy a clear diagnosis and a safe, field-tested treatment plan. Sometimes the best we can do in such cases is administer palliative care and monitor the situation.

Unfortunately, in public administration we also find chronic cases of poor behavior and poor performance. Despite all of the knowledge and skills of a director, a supervisor or an HR advisor, it seems a small percentage of cases, perhaps 5 percent-10 percent involve employees who cannot or will not “get it.”

What these people don’t “get” is how their conduct (or lack thereof), performance (or lack thereof), attendance (or lack thereof), unwillingness to accept or act on counseling and mentoring get in the way of the agency’s mission. They also don’t seem to get it when it comes to understanding that when they fail to behave or perform properly it has an unfortunate infectious impact on their coworkers. Such a person is a “carrier” of the virus of not being accountable or responsible. When such a person works in an agency environment where the supervisors don’t take proper, respectful and assertive steps to interrupt this cycle, the symptoms are going to grow and the virus described above will be nurtured, take root and spread to other people.

One of the major roles of any supervisor is to be involved in infectious disease control – where the disease is arrogance or an unwillingness or inability to accept responsibility.

Such difficult cases also involve another manifestation of the illness. Despite what has been described above, the person with these symptoms will be among the loudest and most frequent to whine, complain, threaten and, if allowed to go unchecked, will begin draining the supervisor of her energy.

Sometimes this is a deliberate strategy. If this person can be allowed to practice a conduct similar to using sandpaper, or water torture, many supervisors in a formal, rigid bureaucracy will abandon hope of being able to have any impact on the person. They will determine it to be easier on them and on their hopes for an early retirement to just let this person remain in a persistent vegetative state, collecting pay and benefits without being productive or a valued colleague (see the HR Doctor’s article “Rust in Peace” at

Medically, and in public administration, pain management may be the best available treatment until science produces some radical breakthrough. Even in modern medicine, antibiotics don’t stop viruses and, in some cases, they don’t stop drug-resistant bacteria. Even today there may be no better prescription for the treatment of the flu than warm chicken soup, a day or two of uninterrupted rest, and a dog at your feet looking up at you hoping you will get better so you can go out and walk and play together.

What are the best available pain management approaches in human resources? Generally they involve first recognizing the problem. In other words, the supervisor who sees poor behavior and ineffective performance or behavior should see it as a responsibility to take action. Rephrased in the HR Doctor’s favorite way, the supervisor has a duty “not to walk by something wrong.”

The supervisor should begin by interrupting the poor behavior, counseling the employee to make sure there is no doubt whatsoever about how the poor performance is contrary to agency rules or requirements and providing any needed training.

At the same time and in such a “problem interruption mode,” the supervisor may determine that there are underlying issues affecting the situation. These may include domestic abuse, family dysfunction, serious health problems, or a co-worker who is sexually harassing, using racist language, or bullying. If any of these very significant disclosures occur during counseling, the supervisor has a particularly strong need and duty to take immediate action and consultation with others, including HR and the director of the agency. The supervisor is committing malpractice by doing nothing, or pretending that the whole thing will go away after the next 3-day weekend.

If, despite the intervention, counseling and an expression of support offered by the supervisor, the problem still persists, it is time to consult a specialist.

As the supervisor, it is time to disclose the problem and have the courage and confidence to know when it’s time to get help. Hopefully, the agency has a strong HR function, which can be a wonderful source of advice, support and training for supervisors in dealing with chronic employee difficulties. Hopefully, the agency has an employee assistance program (EAP) with the capacity, training and experience to work confidentially with the troubled employee and to provide coaching for the supervisor.

In fact, the best EAPs are also fully capable of assessing the dynamics of a work unit, not just an individual. Even in the small work unit of three or four employees there may be underlying behaviors, demonstrated consciously or unconsciously (perhaps even by the supervisor) which are causing unnecessary stress, costs and liabilities to the organization. A proactive HR and EAP team is likely to be the best form or help a manager can get to address a chronic problem.

This powerful “A-team” of proactive HR, EAP and a concerned, courageous supervisor may have to walk down a path of disciplinary action and termination. Even in a rather rigid traditional civil service system, or a union contract, full of procedural requirements and traps into which managers sometime fall, such as narrow deadlines which may be missed, the supervisor and her circle of support have a duty to represent the agency effectively and to pursue the matter.

Even if a disciplinary action may ultimately be turned back or a penalty reduced, there is much that can be learned by reviewing what happened and by continuing to work with the employee to avoid a future disciplinary action. If that does not work, once again, the next disciplinary action and even the one after that, built upon a foundation of job-related causes and a history of the positive efforts at correction, will have a positive effect even though there will be costs to the agency in terms of time, money and morale.

These are very sad and unfortunate costs, they may stem in fact from poor selection practices at the “front end” when “Godzilla the employee” was initially hired. Were proper background checks and reference verifications done in the first place? Was the probationary period, during which the employee was “at will,” properly used for counseling, and perhaps making a separation decision? Instead, did the organization wait until the employee took ownership of his or her job the morning after the probationary period ended when disciplinary action is far more difficult? Was there a proper orientation and clear statement of expectations made up front and continually reinforced? Is there a clear record of the training, counseling and policy understanding by the employee?

Finally, and more strategically, if the agency’s policies are so rigid that supervisors are handcuffed and unable to get the job done, the agency should embark vigorously upon the difficult but essential program of internal reform and process improvement. This may sometime best be done with help from an outside consultant, including the HR Doctor.

However the process is managed locally, it is absolutely essential there be internal champions for reforms. They would include directors, managers and supervisors who have first-hand knowledge of the trouble and cost to the agency of having to continually work with employees who are not good examples of the best in public service. They must join with a proactive HR program and HR staff to speak loudly and consistently in favor of positive change in the Civil Service rules or in the internal practices of the organization. They must articulate to the chief administrative officer, city manager, or elected official why there is a need for change, and why continued ineffective performance despite the best efforts of a supervisor/coach alone will not change the fundamentals.

Put all these ingredients together and an agency can have a pain management program that helps supervisors, managers and even chronic employees who under perform and poorly behave.

If we don’t take these kinds of steps, we will end up spending more money each year for less production. We will create a work place that is to be avoided by the best future applicants and from which the best performing employees seek to flee. We will provide full employment for plaintiffs’ attorneys. None of this need be the case.

Pain management does not have to involve drugs or constant trips to the chiropractor or physical therapist. However, what it must involve is a willingness to demand positive change in a malfunctioning system and support for the courageous supervisors who step up and say “this is wrong”, and “let’s work together to fix it!”

The HR Doctor hopes your pain is always manageable!

All the best,

Phil Rosenberg



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