Employment process – individual vs company


A recent news story in the UK prompted me to think about the way in-house procedures are used by companies to manage their employment policies and the implications of a "one-size fits all" approach.

This story related to Richard Ingrams, a distinguished journalist and founder of Private Eye and The Oldie. He found himself the subject of a disciplinary procedure following his failure to attend a hearing with the owner of The Oldie to discuss falling sales.

Ingrams had refused to attend the hearing because he believed the matter had been dealt with during an earlier meeting and, as a consequence, received a 3 page letter from his employer summoning him to a disciplinary hearing. He ultimately chose to resign rather than follow this process claiming that at 76 years, he was “too old for a disciplinary”.

Ingrams stated that “the manual of modern management” was clumsy and impersonal and reflected “an absurd management world in which people are tying themselves up in knots in order to conform to the rulebook”.  As is the case with so many employers, his company applied their standard procedural process which in this case highlighted three specific issues for Ingrams:

i) the invitation to call witnesses, which with no limits meant he realistically could involve every member of staff since all were in some way associated with the matter

ii) he was permitted to bring a union representative although neither he nor his company had any union involvement, and

iii) he was asked to identify any specific needs as result of disability that should be taken into account, despite being without disability.

Most HR practitioners will recognise some elements of this scenario and many will have had similar conversations with staff – ‘we do it and word it this way so that it’s the same for everyone’.  It’s the most common approach because it avoids problems with tribunals down the line and following the right process is almost always the most important part of a tribunal defence. 

Nonetheless there is an element of "futile rigmarole" as stated by Ingrams, in adopting this "one size fits all" approach.

If a disciplinary hearing is about how a company deals with an individual then why do we ignore what we already know about that person and their circumstances in order to satisfy the demands of a standard process?  What is the cost of appearing to deliberately ignore the individual? 

I absolutely understand the need for companies to have a standard approach to managing employee issues and that tribunals will assess any claim against adherence to that standard, but it seems ironic that a process intended to deal with individuals seems, at its heart, to be so anti-individual.  Perhaps Ingrams is right to say that managers and employees “feel they have to conform to ludicrous procedures, which make them look like idiots”. 

Do we really think as HR practitioners, that this is the right way to approach such sensitive issues?