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Is your conscience clear in HR practices?


As an HR professional adhering to my industry's code of conduct and ethics, honesty and fairness are really important to me. No more so than when it comes to supporting employers with their people matters.

Throughout my HR career, my style has been described as 'Firm but Fair'. My starting point is very often asking myself 'Is my conscience clear?'.

Ask yourself - 'Have you got a clear conscience when it comes to your HR decisions?'

It's not uncommon for business owners and managers to shy away from addressing difficult conversations.  Most are afraid of saying the wrong thing or don't want to upset the employee and some just don't like conflict.

Understanding the HR fundamentals

Did you know?

  • It's OK to let an employee know that they're not meeting your expectations
  • It's OK for you to manage the employee's performance and behaviour (If done in the right way it's not bullying)
  • It's OK to let an employee know that if they don't meet the required standards or improve their behaviour, you might terminate their employment

Supporting businesses in managing employees is one of the best parts of my role. Knowing that I'm helping to resolve an issue that's taking up valuable head space for the business owner - by helping them have those difficult conversations with employees - is really rewarding.

Addressing poor performance and conduct 

When times are tough, businesses look at efficiencies and those who are underperforming or take more management time than others can find themselves in the spotlight.

It'll come as no surprise that underperformers are a cost to your company financially, but what about the cultural implications too? I bet we can all think of examples when we've been frustrated at a colleague who seemingly gets away with poor performance or behaviour and nothing ever seems to happen to them? It's a sure way to demotivate the best members of your team!

One of the most common requests I get for support is in exiting an employee from a business that's 'always been a bit rubbish', 'whose behaviour is difficult', or 'we just can't carry them anymore'.

The risk of an unfair dismissal claim is quite often in the forefront of my clients' minds, but very often coupled with a desire to do the right thing and treat that person with respect.

If you contact me about managing employee performance or conduct, what questions can you expect?

When people reach out to me about performance management or conduct, the first question I ask is usually - Have you ever told them what's expected?

Then you can expect me to ask - Have you told them their performance or behaviour is below the required standard?

Followed by - Have you given them the opportunity and support needed to improve?

And quite often – Is your conscience clear that you've given them every chance of success?

These questions are all designed to make sure that we're doing everything we can to minimise the risk to your business of any decision that you take, and that my advice helps you to achieve the outcome you want.

We might also talk about what's 'normal' for the employee.  We all know that even when we make our best efforts to keep our home and work lives separate, sometimes they overlap.  So, I might also ask 'is there anything going on for the employee that's causing the behaviour?'.

Once we've discussed the circumstances, the next step is often the start of a process of setting the scene with the employee to address the issue or if that's been done already, moving onto the formal stages and how we deliver that to the employee.

Bullying, harassment and misconceptions

I often see managers afraid to address performance and conduct issues for a fear of a bullying or harassment complaint. Sometimes employees use this fear to their advantage.

When done properly, managing performance and conduct is not bullying or harassment. It's how the information is presented that matters, not necessarily what the information is.

Here's an example of how the same information can be presented differently

  1. I'm sick of you making mistakes so if you don't improve, I'll be giving you a formal warning.
  2. I really want you to improve and I'll give you all of the support I can to get there. However, I have to be honest and let you know that we need you to perform at the right level for the role so if we don't see that you're improving we'll need to talk to about this more formally and may consider whether you're the right person for the role.

Yes, it's a bit more long winded but gets the same information across in a less confrontational way.

Let's face it - some employees will complain no matter what you do. However, if you have confidence that you're acting with a clear conscience and you've done everything you can, you shouldn't fear a complaint.

Resolving an issue may take time, but working through it is better than holding onto a headache forever more!

If you're in this position and you just know the employee is going to complain no matter what you do, seek some support from your HR Consultant: we're here to help you every step of the way.

Preventing HR surprises

Some of us like a surprise, some of us not so much.

Whether you're starting someone on the formal performance management or disciplinary process, or you've reached the end of the road and you're about to dismiss an employee, it should never be a surprise.

Would your conscience be clear if you dismissed someone and it was completely out of the blue?

We often underestimate how a bit of work to set the scene beforehand can make a difficult conversation much easier and sometimes avoid it altogether.

Surprise can cause humiliation and often retaliation. Taking time to set the scene may even result in the employee making their own choice before you have to. Few employees would choose to go through a formal performance management process or be dismissed from their role if they think that's the outcome that they are facing.

However, when you are passionate about your business and the employee in question is 'pushing your buttons' it can be easy to act in haste and difficult to maintain your composure!

If you've got an employee who just knows how to push your buttons, here's my advice:

  1. Take a breath, a pause, a minute – whatever works for you. If you need to, walk away.
  2. Give your HR Consultant a call – we understand your pain and are happy to listen (whatever you have to say) as well as advise!
  3. Always aim to treat the employee with respect, no matter what the circumstances.

Maintaining composure undoubtedly gives you the upper hand and strengthens your defence should a complaint arise. It also maintains your dignity, even if they are unable to maintain theirs!

The end of the road: terminating employment contracts

Exiting an employee from a business, whatever the circumstances is never a nice job, it's the end of the road and quite often feels like a failure. I've heard many people say 'we should never have taken that person on'.

That can be difficult and we've all made appointments that haven't worked out. However, when using the clear conscience method, you'll know that you did everything you could to make it work but the employee left you with no other choice - you just couldn't continue.

Always remember - the only thing you can be responsible for is your own actions – what the employee does is up to them.

Your clear conscience HR checklist

So here we go, your checklist for a clear conscience in managing performance and conduct:

  • Boundary setting: Did you set the boundaries?
  • Clear communication: Did you tell the employee what was expected?
  • Effort and support: Did you do everything you could?
  • Expectation management: Did the employee expect the next step?
  • Employee assistance: Did you ask whether there's any support that we can give?
  • Underlying causes: Did you ask whether there is anything causing the issue / what was the reason?

Alternative approaches 

Taking everything I've said so far into account, it's important to note that sometimes there's a decision that is quite simply the right thing for the business at that time and there just isn't the opportunity for a full process.

Alternative approaches come with risk, but in these circumstances I'll work with my client to understand the ideal position and what the risks of an alternative approach might be. So, if there really is no other option, my client understands what their consequences might be and my own conscience is clear.

Next Steps

If you're reading this thinking – 'yep, I have an employee who's not shaping up' give me a call on 07715 370900 and let's talk!

If you've a team of managers who would benefit from guidance and practical skills in managing performance and conduct then perhaps one of our training sessions might be right for you.

Contact me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. to discuss your training needs or book some time straight into my diary for us to chat using this link:

Further Reading


Ethics at work: An employer’s guide | CIPD

Download our guide to view the red flags, action points and resources for employers looking to foster ethical behaviour in their organisations.

Dismissal Procedures | Factsheets | CIPD

Dismissing employees should be considered only when other options have failed. Read about unfair dismissals in the UK and following fair dismissal procedures.
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Tuesday, 28 May 2024