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National Association of Counties * Washington, D.C.      Vol. 32, No. 19 * October 23, 2000

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He Should Have Known This a Long Time Ago!

This is the second of two articles stating what the HR Doctor hopes is a compelling case for managers to pay attention to the risk of negligent hiring, retention and supervision.

Public employees have unique authority, tools and responsibilities often not found in the private sector. Police officers and firefighters join probation officers, corrections officers, mental health providers, health-care providers for the indigent, and many others whose work — or failure in their work — can have permanent and profound effects on the lives of people and on the efficiency and cost of government services.

In a world where the sovereign immunity previously enjoyed by government is waning, and in a world where plaintiffs’ attorneys are plentiful and government employee failures are ripe litigation targets, proactive HR management is all the more vital for the success of every agency.

Negligent retention, supervision
Negligent retention is built upon the idea that behavior or performance problems of a current employee are known by the agency, or should have reasonably been known, and that the agency took no steps or took insufficient steps to cure or prevent the negligent actions that resulted. Allowing the equipment operator with multiple DUI convictions to continue driving a vehicle is a Murphy’s Law tragic accident waiting to happen. Consciously continuing to give the key to the truck to such an employee, who then drives drunk or recklessly causing yet another accident, could cost the agency enormous sums of money and bad publicity.

The police officer with a history of abuse, brutality or domestic violence, who is allowed to continue patrol is as great a liability — if not a greater liability — to the public than the perpetrator of a criminal act. For an agency to allow a registered nurse with a history of discipline and performance failures to go on treating patients may be an embossed invitation to liability for the agency.

A close cousin to negligent retention is negligent supervision. Allowing an employee to conduct the public’s business with poor training, poor supervision, poor equipment or unsafe practices will also result in trouble.

These two forms of negligence are a binary weapon just waiting to explode. Agency management simply cannot walk by this degree of potential trouble and ignore or avoid it. Yet sadly and all too often, that is exactly what happens as supervisors deal with the course of day-to-day business, concerns about staffing shortages, poor funding of HR programs or ignorance about the risks negligence brings. The HR Doctor warns agencies to pay strong and continued attention to these risks and manage them just as any other very serious agency risks might be addressed by professional risk managers.

“Due diligence” to the rescue
The technique to attack and prevent negligence is “due diligence.” Having written policies, clear training for all employees, and applying the policies consistently are the hallmarks of due diligence. An agency that has no clear workplace violence policy, for example, and tolerates aggressive threatening behavior by an employee, could very likely have prevented trouble had the agency developed a policy, trained everyone in it, and had supervisors who promptly and effectively intervened.

Due diligence is a “duty to care,” which must be taken seriously by the agency. Having strongly worded policies about how the county opposes sexual harassment is not enough if the agency doesn’t follow through and walk the walk.

When supervisors understand their responsibilities and feel supported by the agency, when resources to help are readily available and effectively administered, the result will be confident managers bringing the words of agency policies to life in everyday conduct. Yet, sadly, agencies often ignore the needs for strong supervision. The HR Doctor’s article “Supervisor Down, Supervisor Needs Assistance,” is relevant to this worry and may be viewed at the HR Doctor’s Web site.

Follow-up, investigation, and effective responses make the difference in curing or avoiding negligence in public administration. Negligence and malpractice are synonyms for agency failure. Proactive HR and confident skills are the treatments the HR Doctor prescribes.

As a “homework assignment,” readers are asked to consider how effective their agencies are in supporting supervisors on a daily basis. How diligent is the agency in prompt and effective intervention, and in recognizing and praising the managers and employees whose actions prevent trouble instead of waiting to spend the agency’s energy and dollars cleaning up after the elephants have passed by at the end of the parade?

The HR Doctor wishes you great diligence and all the best.


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