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Defending Yourself Against an Unfair Boss

Updated on October 17, 2012
Is this your boss's idea of corrective discipline?
Is this your boss's idea of corrective discipline?

SURVIVING THE BOSS FROM HEAVEN OR HELL-Defending Yourself against Discipline

Your boss calls you in on a dark, rainy Monday morning. He coldly orders you to sit down and shoves in front of you a piece of paper. It is a memo addressed to the human resources department and it says, essentially, that because you have been tardy excessively over the past several months, the boss is putting you on a week’s suspension without pay. You are shocked at this and reply that the boss has never said anything about your being late too often before and, further, you were not aware that you were that late that often. The boss says that he has become fed-up with your tardiness and this was to teach you a lesson. He demands that you sign the memo, acknowledging that the matter has been brought to your attention. What should you do?

1.      Sign the memo and thank the boss for his kindness.

2.      Refuse to sign the memo, suggest what the boss can do with it and storm out of the office.

3.      Neither of the above.

The obvious answer is, Neither of the above, but what is not so obvious is exactly what the employee should do. The answer to that question depends on a number of factors: does the employee work for a small organization that has no human resource policies protecting the employee? Does the employee work for a large corporation with human resources policies? Does the employee work for a public service organization, such as the federal or state or local government? Is the employee covered by a union contract? The answers to each of these questions will mean different things in terms of the appropriate response of the employee.

First of all, employees in a small private company with no protections for the employee are pretty much at the mercy of the boss for fairness in applying discipline and even if the employee is fired or not. But in a large organization with human resource policies and protections for the employee, particularly public service organizations like government and where the employee is covered by a union contract, things would be quite different.

There are really two main categories of discipline for any boss in almost any organization: One is mandatory discipline where a proscribed form of discipline must be given to the employee for certain types of actions or offenses. Some of the latter might include use of alcohol or illegal drugs on the job, stealing company property or being convicted of a felony. Here, the human resource manual or the employee handbook or both would usually spell out the appropriate form of discipline-written reprimand or warning, suspension with or without pay, demotion or firing-to be applied for each offense. Normally, the employee would have no defense against either the boss or the organization with mandatory discipline, but the key concept that applies here is proven offenses, not suspected offenses. For instance, in the case of alcohol, if the boss smells booze on the employee’s breath, finds a half-consumed bottle of scotch in the employee’s locker and other employee report that his functioning is impaired, that would be pretty convincing proof of the offense and justification for the discipline.

The other category of discipline is discretionary, or that which is up to the boss to decide when it is to be applied and, in many cases, what form it should take. This category of discipline may be applied for tardiness, excessive absenteeism, the breaking of work rules or safety rules and for poor performance. The human resource manual may address these areas of discretionary discipline to a limited and general way, but it will be up to management, as a group or as head of a department or up to individual bosses to decide how this category of discipline will be applied. And herein is the problem because bosses have a tendency to be very uneven, inconsistent and even unfair in dealing with this category of discipline. Thus, the employee must always be in a defensive mode in facing any form of discipline, whether mild or harsh, from any kind of boss, whether from heaven or from hell.

Being in a defensive mode means that the employee asks the boss for specific justification for the discipline and the employee must demand a chance to answer all points made by the boss. For instance, in the case that opened this article, the employee should get answers to the following questions:

·         What is really meant by tardiness by that boss in that organization? This definition varies from organization to organization and even department to department. For instance, in some organizations, anyone who comes to work more than five minutes after the starting time is late. In other organizations it may be more minutes and in other organizations the employee is late if he shows up one minute after stating time. But even with the latter definition, there is still some variance: some organizations count the employee as on time if he or she is in the lobby or in the elevator on the way up to his work place, while others require the employee to be already at the work place and ready for work at starting time.

·         More specifically, what is “excessive” tardiness-three times late? Five times late? And does the boss apply the same definition of “excessive” tardiness to all employees consistently or only to this employee. If the latter, the boss can be found to be unfair and discriminatory against this employee.

·         Did the boss bring the tardiness problem to the attention of the employee and attempt to correct it before hitting the employee with a very punishing form of discipline? If not, the boss will lose any complaint or grievance brought by the employee.

These same kinds of questions should be asked by the employee regardless of the cause of the discipline, particularly if it is poor performance, which is very difficult for many bosses to define. In the case above, the employee presents his defense to try to persuade the boss to change his mind about the harsh discipline. If the boss refuses, the employee should sign the memo with a note that a memo to the file rebutting the discipline will soon follow. Then the employee should file adverse action against the boss to have the suspension overturned and removed from his file. When the case is investigated, the questions above will be asked of the boss and if he does not have good answers, he will have to pay a price.

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