Conducting Discipline-Related Meetings
SEA Member Bob Gilson discusses how best to deal with problem employees.
By Bob Gilson
I hate meetings. Most of my career I tried to avoid them if at all possible. If you are going to hold one, there are a couple of points to remember. Managers call meetings, everyone else requests them. Managers decide the agenda, who participates, how long it lasts and most important of all, when it’s over.
Some meetings are necessary and this article is about one of them. I’ll call it the “what the #@$& happened?” meeting. In this meeting you are going to deal with an allegation or appearance of misconduct by someone you manage. These meetings are never easy, but if structured and prepared for properly can accomplish their goal with a minimum of manager pain. The goal – get the employee’s side of the story.
Most managers are not crack interrogators a la “Law & Order”. In fact, most managers would rather take a whuppin’ than conduct an investigative meeting with a subordinate. So where do you start?
Thoroughly Prepare for the Meeting
Identify what you know or nail down clearly what you’ve been told. Who, where, what, when, etc. Make a list of questions requiring an answer from the employee that confirms an existing fact, refutes it or where the employee claims ignorance of it. The meeting should allow the employee to claim a new fact and support it. Questions should focus on facts first and when you have the facts, you may then move on to questions addressing why something happened or what the employee would do if the situation was reversed and they were sitting in your seat.
Invite the Employee to the Meeting in Writing
There are no secrets here. The purpose of putting it in writing is to make clear why you want to meet with the person. Let’s call this a Pre-Meeting Memorandum (click here to see a sample). While I wouldn’t disclose the source of my knowledge at this point, let the employee know what’s been alleged so he can deal with the allegation by providing either new facts or an explanation.
Anticipate Employee Actions
If the employee is represented by a union, expect him to invite a union representative to the meeting. If you expect union participation, reread the collective bargaining agreement and have a talk with your labor relations advisor about how this kind of meeting generally goes at your Agency. If the labor advisor tells you these meetings are often contentious or that the representatives are argumentative, ask your advisor to join you at the meeting. Employees are only entitled to a “union” representative, no one else - Not attorneys, not coworkers, and not witnesses at this point.
Follow Your Plan
This is your meeting to hear the employee’s version of the facts. Keep it that way. Don’t engage in discussions of unrelated topics. Don’t express an opinion. Don’t counsel or advise at this point, there will be time for that after you’ve considered what the employee has to say, other facts that may come to your attention, the rules and what your advisors have to contribute.
The Most Important Thing
This is a listening meeting for you not a telling meeting. Get an answer to your questions. Even if what the employee says is preposterous, unbelievable or even silly. What’s important is to get the employee’s side of the story. I’ve had managers ask me, “What if I know he’s lying?”. My answer is it’s the employee’s story to tell not yours. If the employee wants to put forth alleged facts that are patently untrue, we must assume he has a reason after all he’s an adult. Children are not eligible for Federal appointment. Fools might be. It possible the employee will be liable for lies he/she tells you in addition to discipline for whatever they did that got them to the meeting in the first place. There are plenty of cases out there with a charge of “lack of candor”.
Carefully Document the Meeting
Take your time. Note everyone present or involved by full name and title. Write the provided answers to your questions of who, what, when, where, and why (include date, time, exact location, and other pertinent details). Document what the employee stated or alleged as an explanation. Document exact quotations, if possible, and use quotation marks when quoting precisely what was said.
Watch Your Mouth!
Your only agenda is to get the employee’s answers to the questions you’ve developed. Am I repeating myself? Good. That’s my intent.
What if the Employee Refuses to Answer?
Your right to hold this meeting and the employee’s obligation to answer questions is the subject of a Supreme Court decision. Absent a provable claim by the employee that a prospective answer would actually incriminate him/her, (not get him/her reprimanded, suspended, changed to lower grade or removed but ACTUALLY subject him/her to a criminal action) they are obliged to answer or face a charge of failure to cooperate in an official investigation, or failure to follow an instruction or whatever your Agency calls it. The court case is LaChance v. Erickson decided in 1998. Google it. It’s worth a read.
More About the Union?
The union may advise the employee but may not answer for him/her. The union may ask questions to clarify yours but may not disrupt the meeting. If it begins to be a problem, advise the union that you want the employee to answer the question, not the union representative and that failure to do so may result in discipline a la LaChance, above. Most employees faced with the choice of believing you or the union, aren’t likely to put their fate in a coworker’s hands. I and other practitioners counsel that if the union makes it too hard, end the meeting, give the employee the list of questions in writing with a specific direction to answer in writing at a date/time certain. Most (including me) would say the price of poker rises if an employee refuses a written order. For a good case on the limits of union representation in one of these meetings look at 52 FLRA No. 43 (1996). (The link is https://www.flra.gov/decisions/v52/52-043.html
Ending the Meeting
Remember, your purpose here is to get facts and an explanation so once you think you have the relevant information, you should ask one last question, “Is there anything else I need to know about this matter? If not, send the attendees back to work. If asked, what’s next?, your answer should be that you will review the facts and make a decision as to how to proceed. Remember, this meeting is to get facts not make conclusions based on them, yet.
After the Meeting
Put together a memorandum to the employee specifying what was said in the meeting and offering the employee an opportunity to add to or clarify anything said at the meeting. We’re not playing “GOTCHA” here just trying to find out what happened.
This meeting, done correctly, forms the basis for your next step whether that will be further investigation, initiating an action or if the facts warrant, doing nothing at all. There a number of things that can complicate one of these meetings such as pending discrimination allegations, employee whistleblower allegations, allegations of criminal misconduct but those are for another article or two or three.
I have another article coming on putting together an inquiry; how to decide what questions to ask; and preparing for the above meeting. Please let SEA know if you’re finding my articles helpful. Thanks.
Bob Gilson is an SEA member who began his Federal career with the US Civil Service Commission. He held labor and employee relations, managerial, and other HR-related positions with OPM and other agencies. Since his retirement, Bob has provided a variety of HR consulting and training services to Federal agencies and has written number advice and commentary articles appearing in FedSmith.com.
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