7 Manager Mistakes That Land Employers In Court

Lawsuits by employees are on the rise and we read from time to time of employees who have won massive court awards against their employers. The subsequent action is that the employer appeals, only for the same to be thrown out and often with costs. Sometimes these lawsuits have merit, sometimes they don’t. But, either way, those lawsuits cost time and money, money that can be utilized for beneficial employee activities. What could the managers be doing or failing to do that lands the employer with these unbudgeted costs?

Constructive Dismissal
Constructive Dismissal lawsuits are often triggered by the manager-employee relationship. The adage that employees don’t leave organizations, they leave their managers is true. An employee may be forced to resign from his job due to a toxic relationship with the manager. Such an employee will sue under Constructive Dismissal. A leader’s self-awareness and the impact they have on their team is crucial to effective leadership and influence.

Inadequate or no Communication
When an employee errs, a manager may fail to communicate the same to the employee. The employee does not know that the manager is building up a case against them and only gets it when their neck is on the block and they are on their way out. Anger and a sense of betrayal lead them to court.

Sloppy or no documentation
An employee is potentially headed for termination but the line manager does not document cases of employee misconduct or failure by the employee to deliver, and if they do, it cannot pass the test in a court of law. When they eventually recommend termination, it’s the manager’s word against the employee’s – the truth of the matter is that the employee erred, the reality however is that the manager cannot prove it. Clear documentation is necessary.

Good Performance Appraisal Reports
Performance reviews are important for managers and authentic feedback is necessary for employee performance and growth. Managers however inflate the ratings for various reasons including not wanting to be seen as a bad manager or to look good in the eyes of their teams. Such a manager cannot later cite poor performance as a basis for terminating the employee. This could well ring true of the saying that there are no bad employees, only bad managers. Honest and consistent feedback is necessary – it will save you from sitting on the hard benches in court.

Clueless about policies and procedures
You may have heard of a manager who terminates an employee and says – “you are fired! Let’s meet in court” – granted the employee deserves every bit of the manager’s anger and yes it’s easier to get rid of the employee and go to court if the employee sues for unfair termination than to retain him. However, courts expect supervisors to know their organization’s policies and
procedures concerning employee separation. Be slow to anger, or it will come back to bite you financially as well as your organization’s brand reputation.

Trumped-up or Cooked evidence
There are times when the manager just wants the employee out but does not have valid reasons for terminating them. They may start with a flimsy reason for a show cause letter, hurriedly followed by a shoddy hearing and quick termination. The employee goes to court and the court can see through the rush of disciplinary actions cited in the days before termination.
An employee who deserves to leave an organization will leave, just follow the due process.

Flawed Interviews
Hiring is expensive, in terms of the time and cost it takes to hire an employee. A hurried process may lead to the wrong hire, only for the organization to realize its mistake. Granted the probation period may save the employer from such a misfit of an employee, but it does not guarantee that the employee will not sue – Be careful about promises made at the interview and selection time as they could be used against the organization. Take time to know whom you are hiring, carry out background checks, and if necessary assessment tests.

Can’t Leave- Won’t Leave
A manager may be tempted to make promises to a fixed-term employee to the effect that they will be transitioned into a permanent role or a renewal of the contract. The manager may have no authority to make such a decision or the guidelines are crystal clear regarding fixed-term contracts. The time comes when the contract ends and the employee has to leave. He may sue to cite the promises made. Loose and ambiguous contracts are also another route to court. All employment contracts should be clear on the terms of termination or renewal in the case of fixed term contracts. It is also crucial that the manager handles the relationship with such employees at arms-length and with no promises made on changing the contract terms.

Taking time to understand potential pitfalls will save you time and costs if employee lawsuits arise. As a manager, you may also be sued in your personal capacity – this is unnecessary if the right leadership measures are put in place.


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I have keenly been following conversations on abuse in the workplace as varied views and opinions are discussed. A recent tragedy was reported of a young hardworking employee who jumped to his death and according to a daily, he was overworked, burned out, a perfectionist.

Stress in the workplace is a current daily experience. Adequate stress that keeps the adrenaline running at a good pace is welcome. Stress that leads to diseases and death should be a concern for organizations and indeed leaders.

What leads to stress in the workplace?

The obvious is the never-ending demand for better results. The world is rapidly changing, the customers are more demanding and dictate the trends and organizations have to be more innovative to remain ahead of the customer or to respond to the customer’s demands or be annihilated by competition.

A certain organization has always been very driven to remain at the top. The employees are so driven that it’s been said that at a business planning session, an employee collapsed while making his presentation. He was wheeled out of the room to hospital and without a break, his colleague was asked to continue with the presentation.

In another organization, two senior employees succumbed to heart attacks in one year. One of them while at work.

The demand for results places a lot of pressure on the employees to deliver often without adequate resources. In order to make huge returns, organizations consistently work on reducing costs sometimes at the expense of necessary investments in employees in terms of their training and upskilling. However, the employee is expected to continue delivering results within this volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous environment. Employees have needs outside work, bills to pay and families to take care of so they stay and work. They learn to quickly adjust to the new environment, some of the time the hard way. They fear to lose their jobs so they work and work themselves into hospital emergency rooms or into drugs and alcohol and broken families.

Another cause of stress is the leadership… the managers and bosses. A manager under pressure to deliver in the environment described above pushes the pressure down to his team. A manager who is not self-aware especially on how they respond to work pressure may ruin their team members’ careers forever. It’s been said that people don’t leave organizations they leave their managers. I beg to differ. Employees leave both the organizations and their managers.

Human beings are competitive by nature. Employees want to excel at what they do and some more than others will do whatever it takes to excel. They work hard to get to the next level, they study and attain a certificate to back them up. All this is good but it sometimes has done at the expense of everything else that matters, one’s health and sometimes family. The higher one rises in the workplace the higher the responsibilities and demands. This takes a toll on one, quietly, silently and hypertension becomes a part of their lifestyle.

Some organizations are well aware of the issues and some leave it to the employee to figure out how to cope…we often hear of shape up or ship out. Some have implemented policies that support the employee deal with these workplace challenges but others only pay lip service to these policies They have nice policies like flexitime and work remotely etc. All good but do not address the pressure causing the stress.

How can these work pressures be remedied?

As an employee, remember you are first a human being then an employee. Take care of yourself and your health, that’s all that matters at the end of the day. Go to work do it with your head and not your heart..the work doesn’t recognize your heart and remembers it’s not personal. If the workplace gets too toxic and you have exhausted all channels of support internally, leave. Ship out. Don’t forget to seek social support from family, friends, professionals, etc.

For leaders, know thyself. You are bestowed with a very heavy responsibility for leading teams. It’s not just their work that matters to you, it’s their careers and futures and to some extent their health. The good book says, “to whom a lot is given, a lot is expected.” Invest in yourself for your own sake and that of your team. Get to know your people on a personal level. That way you get to know their strengths and weaknesses both at a work and a personal level.

For the HR community, your role is duo fold, you are a business partner and an employee advocate. Go beyond the policies and get to know your people. As an advocate, speak up for those who can’t speak for themselves, call out managers who bully and overwork their teams. Also, support managers who are struggling in their roles. In addition, guard against budget cuts that deny employees opportunities for development. As a business leader, find creative ways of achieving results in employee development and delivering ROI through your function. Your core responsibility is the people, remember that.

A leader can make or break

Starting out as a teacher, Winnie Pertet, has shot straight to the stars riding on a stellar career that has culminated into the role of a Human Resource Director. Her plunge into the HR industry was through the banking sector from where she grew into larger organisations. Her footprints of HR transformation in the banking industry, manufacturing sector and financial institutions are evidence of her multidimensional expertise. “I started   off my career as a high school teacher, where I taught English language and Literature. I  then joined Post Bank as a management trainee for a year and thereafter a role opened up where I stepped up as an instructor imparting staff with communication and supervisory skills,” says Pertet. This was only a beginning of a tremendous career as a HR expert. Leap by leap, Pertet has scaled the professional ladder to the pinnacle of excellence leading to her current occupation as the Lead Consultant and CEO of Serian Consulting, and chair of the National Employment Authority.

How she began

Pertet traces her growth to the transition she made from Post Bank to a commercial bank where she was exposed to the actual banking roles. At the time, the bank was undergoing a restructuring and she volunteered to work with the consultant who  was undertaking the process. “I supervised a team of administration staff   and my responsibility in leading this  team was crucial in establishing myself as a leader”.

Nine months later, Pertet moved to Delphis  Bank now, Oriental Bank as HR Manager and then KCB where she outgrew her position as HR manager, to become the Bank’s  HR Change Manager ,  then  the Bank’s training manager and then  senior HR Manager in charge of branches. “The experience I accumulated from working in the various banks positioned me for higher and more challenging roles in even larger organisations,” she says. Besides the banking industry, Pertet has worked  in senior HR roles with EABL, CocaCola Sabco,  UAP , UAP Old Mutual Group  before breaking away to establish her own HR consulting company, Serian Consulting that is still in its budding stage.

Launching into business

“Leaving employment to pursue a passion in entrepreneurship is never essay,” ascertains Pertet, who adds that heeding the call to break out of the comfort zone  and accept to take on a challenging and uncertain ground of self-employment takes courage. So, what was the pushing force? With over 25 years of practice in HR, Pertet felt that she had enough experience to sail her own ship, and work with several organisations in HR Management and establishing a HR firm was the ultimate way to go.

She admits that self-employment is a whole different ball game, and one has to wade through with an open mind, as challenges can come up unexpectedly. “For me new experiences each day are exciting and that’s what thrills me to pursue the best results for every situation,” says Pertet further elaborating that she gets bored by routine. Pertet who defines herself as passionate, persistent and results oriented is clearly a free-spirited mind and these attributes allow her to take challenges that come her way in stride.

The strongest tool in this trade however, Pertet says, is the networks she has established in her career. While people may take for granted the relationships they build in the office with colleagues while they are still in contact, these relationships become highly invaluable the moment the name ‘colleague’ is dropped. Her networks have played a big role in developing  a clientele base for Serian Consulting either through direct business or referrals.

HR as a strategic role

Today, HR has evolved into a strategic function. Everything HR does  must link into the Corporate Strategy  .  “The HR strategy in itself needs to be derived  from  the corporate strategy, else all the planning and implementation   of the corporate strategy  will be efforts in futility,” she explains. Asked what the implications of advancing technology are on HR, Pertet says; “In this era of automation, HR is exposed to so many potential changes but the one critical aspect of organisations that won’t change is relationships. We can automate everything but relationships with customers   staff and other stakeholders will always require  the human intervention and this is the determinant of a successful organisation.

Her view on leadership

Having held leadership positions in  various companies, Pertet embraces situational leadership and is of the view that leadership is a very delicate responsibility. “If not handled well, leadership can be a frustrating, spirit crushing and career killing vehicle, “she warns. When entrusted with a team of individuals to lead, one must be very careful and focus on  growing  the  individuals  as well as the team, as moves that may seem inconsequential could be individual dream killers.” The best approach to ensure this she says, is to be self-aware. She posits three tenets of leadership: self-awareness, developing others and getting the work done. Her advice to business leaders and employees is: always remember the power of relationships.


Caroline Mwendwa is the Editor, Management Magazine. Email: cmwendwa@kim.ac.ke

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