Monday, July 13, 2015

Five Ways For New Supervisors to Cause a Lawsuit

Many pitfalls exist for new supervisors. It’s not about getting the work of the employer done; that’s the easy part. It’s just much more difficult than it seems to supervise employees.  Additionally, it’s always a little bit tougher for an employee to become a supervisor when he or she will supervise the very people with whom they used to be co-workers. Today’s post is for those supervisors who were promoted from the ranks. 

Aside from handling the increased responsibilities in ensuring that the work of the employer gets done, new supervisors have to adjust to their role with the people who used to be their co-workers. With the continued rise in employment litigation, new supervisors have to pay at least as much attention to their interaction with their former co-workers as they do to the actual work of the employer, and nothing sours a career like creating liability for your employer through the way you supervise. The following are five common ways that new supervisors can cause lawsuits:  

1. Think that those who you supervise will still be your friends

It’s pretty common for people to want others to like them. This is especially true for a new supervisor when the people that he or she supervises used to be their fellow workers, joined sometimes as “comrades in arms”,  often times with a common goal of standing together against “the man”.  As a new supervisor, you need to forget about that. With rare exception, the people you supervise are probably not going to be or remain your friends because you have to maintain authority over these employees and they’re probably not going to like that a lot. The quicker a new supervisor understands that it is far better to have the respect of their staff than to be their friend, the more successful that supervisor will be. New supervisors have to understand and accept that they may have to take tough positions against the people they considered to be their friends. They can’t let friendship cloud their supervisory judgment because leniency towards a “friend” can translate into unjust harshness against another employee when the same leniency is not afforded to that employee in a same or similar situation.
Additionally, it’s difficult enough to get your former co-workers to think of your as a full fledged “boss” without confusing them by giving them the impression that you’re still their buddy. The sad fact is that rarely can you be both friend and supervisor.  The best practice is to avoid social situations, at least until the new relationship settles in. Besides, how can they talk about you if you’re with them?

2. Think that at least one of the people you supervise wouldn’t secretly like to see you fail

Jealousy is ugly but a real feeling among at least a few of the people with whom  a new supervisor used to be co-workers. Your success infers their failure, especially if they vied for the promotion as well. They will be watching your work with an eagle’s eye, so it’s doubly important to hone your supervisory skills quickly and sharply. 

3. Fail to be familiar with policies as well as past practice

Supervisors know that they have to follow policies, but it’s equally important to know whether a past practice in the workplace diverges from the policy. For instance, the employer may have a policy that states that an employee will receive a written reprimand after three instances of tardiness. If the employer has an actual practice of being more lenient than the policy, a new supervisor can quickly find themselves in trouble if they don’t consider the past practice along with the policy, especially if the supervisor applies the stricter policy to an employee who is in a protected class and who will undoubtedly compare themselves to those who are not in a protected class.

4. Fail to evaluate accurately

This issue is largely an extension of paragraph 1 above. It’s more difficult for new supervisors to dissociate their personal feelings for an employee from their professional evaluation of their work, and so they have to be more conscious of issuing objective evaluations. It’s equally important that new supervisors don’t take responsibility for an employee’s poor performance for fear that it’s really their fault because they’re a new supervisor. The problem always comes down to the fact that the risk of messy litigation increases when an adverse action is taken against an employee whose evaluations do not accurately reflect their performance.

5. Fail to report personnel problems immediately

It’s not a failure as a supervisor to have an employee that’s failing. New supervisors are often guilty of being over protective of employees with performance or behavior problems because they feel it’s a poor reflection on their supervisory skills if they can’t resolve the problem. The real problem though from a liability perspective is to avoid taking adverse action against an employee, including appropriate recommendations up the organizational hierarchy, for fear of being seen as an ogre or a failure. Taking no or minimal action against an employee with real performance or behavior problems creates a bad past practice against which others will compare their own behavior or performance and creates bad morale among workers who are putting forth their best efforts.  
Employers should be aware of the difficulty for some new supervisors in transitioning into their new position of authority. Helping new supervisors to learn the basic skills of being a supervisor and being sensitive to possible pitfalls will result in better supervision, a more stable workforce and fewer employment lawsuits with more solid defenses.