Don't Shoot Yourself in the Foot!

Posted by: Scott Kidd, Director of Labor Relations on Thursday, January 31, 2019

Definition of PrecedenceHave you ever encountered a problem and found that a previous action has now set a precedent for your future action? In plain language, “you probably just shot yourself in the foot!” When we ignore or modify a personnel policy or union contract language to give a break to a favored employee we may make one employee happy in the short term, but if we don’t make the same accommodation for the next employee we can really get into trouble.

Let me relate a brief story about an employer who faced this very issue. This employer is staffed with individuals who are mandated, by government regulation, to have and maintain a license to legally perform their work. To ensure these licenses are kept up to date, the employer has a software program that tracks expiration dates and notifies when a license is coming due for renewal. Sadly, this system seems to occasionally fail to notify of needed renewals. One of the firm’s key employee’s license came up for renewal but the employee failed to act on it. Thus the employee continued to work for three months with an expired license. When this issue was uncovered, the employer was upset but did not want to lose this favored employee (termination is the remedy according to the personnel policy and union contract language for this offense). Rather than follow the prescribed discipline, the employer allowed the individual to go get their license updated and told them to never do this again. End of story, everyone was happy and work went on as usual!

Over a year passed and another individual, in the same job, was discovered to have let their license lapse for a similar length of time. Again, the system failed to notify that the license was due for renewal. This employee was considered marginal, at best. Thus, the employer implemented the full force of the policy and union contract and fired the individual. Well, I am sure you can guess at the result! The employee complained, the union filed a grievance, and eventually the employer was forced to reinstate the fired employee and give them the same level of discipline they had previously established.

Actions speak louder than words and when you make a positive or negative reinterpretation of policy language, you just may have changed how it is interpreted from that point forward!

What can we learn from this? For starters, when writing policies and/or negotiating labor contracts, make certain to try and give yourself a bit of wiggle room in your language. However, if you have very defined language in your policy or contract, make sure you understand it and apply it consistently to all employees!

Need assistance updating your policies or collective bargaining agreement? CEA can help! We have a team of experienced labor relations experts who can help support and protect your organization now and in the future.

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