TITLE: Preventing Employee Issues AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford DATE: February 27, 2007 5:05 PM DESC: ----- BODY: Today, I've been sitting all day (except for class) in a seminar put on by my university's Office of Compliance and Equity Management, called "Preventing Employee Issues". The presenter is a lawyer who defends organizations against lawsuits from employees on grounds of discrimination, harassment, unlawful termination, medical difficulties, and so on. The idea is that we in attendance might learn how to do our jobs more effectively, both from the perspective of our employer and from the perspective of our employees. The thought of faculty in my department as my "employees" makes me chuckle almost as much as it would make them, but the legal effect is the same. This is the sort of event that I would never have been asked to attend as a faculty member. And so this is the sort of post I would never written before, and the sort that my friend Joe could probably do without! While I'd rather have been writing code, I have found the seminar quite interesting. I've always enjoyed listening to lawyers talk about the law, and this would have been a bit of fun even if it didn't apply more directly to my current work duties. I'm surprised at just how much of the advice we've received is simply good practice for how any person should live and treat others. It's almost a re-telling of Fulghum's dicta: These seem like good behaviors for most any part of one's life. They remain important when you are a manager, whether at a university or in a software house. The lawyer's essential point is that they become even more important for supervisors and organizations, because they create environments in which employees can work reasonably and thus in which employers have met their legal obligations to employees. One stream of advice running throughout the presentation is: Document. Document everything. Document, document, document. Documentation creates the historical record that supports the actions a manager has taken, should those actions ever be called into question. Indeed, even if you prefer not to follow the "good behavior" guidelines above for moral or ethical reasons, you might decide to do so cynically because they create a living documentation that you try to create a reasonable working environment. This is one situation where the law, both statute and case law, create a "market" in which good behavior has value beyond a person's own belief system. The biggest thing I learned is this regard is the importance of documentation even when you don't think you need it. For example, when I became a department head, I became supervisor to the department secretary, whom I consider to be meeting the expectations of her position. My university recommends but does not require that I do an annual performance evaluation. The secretary and I discussed it, and we figured that there wasn't much of a need to go through all of the paperwork that an annual performance evaluation. But now I realize that I do need to do the evaluation annually -- in case I ever need to in the future. Suppose that our current secretary leaves and we hire a new one. The new person exhibits a pattern of performance problems, so I decide to do the annual performance evaluation to help the secretary improve and to begin to document the problems. The very fact that I did not evaluate the previous secretary could come back to haunt me, because the new employee could allege that I was treating him or unfairly just by evaluating them! This could be spun as a form of harassment. This may seem like a stretch, but we know how the law can work sometimes, especially when a jury comes into play. The safest thing for me to do is "do the right thing" and evaluate my current secretary, to set the right example and to create a track record of doing so. I'm trying to think of a way in which I can relate this to a principle of software design or programming; it seems like the sort of idea that bridges many kinds of activity. Maybe this is similar writing tests for code that you "know can't break", because one of these days it might, or following the practices of a methodology such as XP even when they seem like overkill. These have the sense of "do it anyway" but perhaps not the same sense of "historical record". Oh, well. Another stream is that there are a lot of laws that matter. FERPA, OSHA, and ERISA are just the beginning. I'm glad that my university should and does provide support to us front-line managers. One benefit of this sort of seminar is learning what kinds of situations trigger issues that need to be addressed. Perhaps the most immediate result of attending the seminar is to have a small sense of unease about my recent roles on a couple of search committees. Have we done our due diligence? Has the university done what the committee didn't? Yikes. I'd better be sure that we know what we need to know about our candidates. -----