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The Unholy Trinity of HR

The Unholy Trinity of HR

The power of three.  We have been thinking a lot about this with the launch of our new brand and our newly merged firm of Burness Paull & Williamsons LLP.  Good things come in threes.  There is a certain symmetry to it.  Having three separate offices of equal size and with a focus on quality in each of the three major cities in Scotland certainly gives us a competitive edge. 

It also got me thinking about another set of three that we often come across as employment lawyers advising HR professionals.  I presented a training workshop to clients the other week for line managers.  The focus of the session was on performance management.  When working through various case studies and worked examples with the delegates, it became apparent that, while no two cases are the same, there seems more and more often to be a certain trend when dealing with complex performance management cases.  Certainly no case is simple these days. 

What starts with performance management can often spiral - with managers losing control of the process.  Midway through a case study, I picked up my trusty flipchart pen and sketched out a triangle on the whiteboard.  The top vertex was “performance”; to the right I wrote “absence”; and to the left I added “grievance”.  I then completed the diagram with the vicious circle working around from performance to absence to grievance. 

One of the delegates described this as the “unholy trinity of HR”!  Invariably that it what we see happening in practice…  What starts as a performance management situation can often put the employee into their “basement” of emotions and then cause them to go off on sick leave.  As the employee’s anger (or sometimes confidence) grows, the employer might then be faced with a complex grievance.  The reasonable employer would be well advised to have separate management personnel handle each of the three different stages of the triangle.  Cue further delays, cost and management time. 

I am a firm believer in cutting through the clutter of these processes with a proactive approach to both absence and performance management. And, better still, I recommend that clients reach for mediation to try to resolve the multitude of disputes which the adversarial nature of internal processes can so often involve.  Whether internal workplace mediation using a trained mediation from within your own organisation or reaching for an external mediator when things get tough, mediation has become part of our standard to help clients head claims off at the pass.  Managers never like to uphold a grievance for fear of future litigation.  Mediation provides a “safe” environment in which to explore candidly what success actually looks like to both sides. 

So, there is a “third way” to handling disputes in the workplace.  Not fighting a claim.   Not just following the internal processes sequentially.  But, rather, looking to reach a principled compromise in mediation.  So, good things do still come in threes. 

David Morgan