Episode 211: Employee Suspensions Will Not Solve All Your Problems

Employee suspensions can be one of the most risky situations to tackle as a manager or owner of a business. Knowing when a suspension is the right thing to do can be a tough decision to make, plus the addition of making sure you are compliant in how you go about it can cause extra stress surrounding the whole situation. Listen as manager of compliance, Nora Gustafson, and Paul Edwards sit down and discuss situations when suspension is needed, and when there are better options to consider.

Voice Over: You’re about to listen to another episode of What The Hell Just Happened?! Join Paul Edwwards and his guests as they discuss and sometimes even solve some interesting HR problems.

Paul: And… I’m gonna go off the rails sometimes and talk about whatever I want. 

Nora: Hi, Paul.

Paul: Hello, Nora. How are you today?

Nora: I’m doing all right. How’s your Hump Day going?

Paul: Hump Day is going pretty good. Yeah. Yeah, I got a new toy. I’m, you know, I’m, like, into. You may not know this about me, but I might. When I went to college, I went to college for something called Alternative Energy Studies, and it was all about solar and, you know, electric and hydrogen cars and… And so I got my first electric vehicle today.

Nora: Oh wow! 

Paul: And it’s not a car.

Nora: Oh?

Paul: It’s very fast and scary.

Nora: It’s a motorcycle?

Paul: It is a motorcycle. So that’s why I’m kind of excited today. Because I finally got to, on a not a test ride and being limited, I got to ride the motorcycle into work.

Nora: Very cool. Are you going to get your tax credit?

Paul: I think I am wondering whether or not you get it for the motorcycle or not.

Nora: I wonder, too.

Paul: I’m hoping.

Nora: Yeah. I have a plan to buy an electric car once those tax credits get rolled out. Yeah, I’ve got a hybrid right now, but I want full electric.

Paul: Yeah, I do, too. I’m getting solar panels installed at the end of the year, and I’ve put a plug at the house and just because it’s, you know, you can plug it into the wall. But anyway.

Nora: Very cool.

Paul: So far. Very excited, but. Okay.

Nora: Okay.

Paul: Nothing to do with HR.

Nora: Nothing.[Laughs]

Paul: Just you have to do something for yourself. Every now and then. So if you’re a manager out there listening or an owner of the business, one of the best ways to relieve HR stresses is to go very fast on an electric motorcycle or something.

Nora: Ride your motorcycle into work.

Paul: Or the proverbial whatever your version of that is.

Nora: Yeah, I get that. I listen to NPR.

Paul: That’s right. Ooh, that’s crazy.

Nora: Wild! Okay, on to H.R.. So this is a question we get a lot from members and this member has an employee who is constantly late and missing work, and they’re fed up and they want to write this employee up. And in that write up, they want to tell the employee that they’re being suspended for two weeks so they can sit… can consider whether they really want to work for the practice or not. And so I’m just wondering… how you… what guidance you would give this member.

Paul: Well, if it were 1969, I would be like, that’s a great idea, because we’d be in the parental mode of working with one another. You can hear my comment dripping with sarcasm. I would just point out that you have a person who is missing work and wants to not be at work and is away from work, and you’re about to let them be away from what you’re about to encourage them to be away from work more.

I do understand you’re trying to get through to them. You’re trying to like… you’ve talked. So, Nora, you are asked, you know, answer me this. Have they talked to them until, as my mom said, they were blue in the face like they don’t have any more oxygen left. They’ve been trying to get the employee to do the right thing. And the employee keeps choosing to miss work and be late?

Nora: I want to say yes, but I have to say that frequently the answer is no. 

Paul: Right. 

Nora: Frequently our members… they don’t communicate with the employee. They get so frustrated and then their solution is, okay, we’re just going to suspend.

Paul: Or they’re so busy.

Nora: Yes. Yes, they’re so busy. And they haven’t been able to. And now it’s to the point where it’s kind of built up, built up, built up. And it’s like, okay, we’re just going to suspend them.

Paul: I want to recognize this from the people who are managers and owners out there. I get it. It’s like you show up, everybody else shows up. You have one person who really is not. Will you show up metaphorically? In some way, but in a literal sense, they’re always late or behind or not, you know, hitting the number, hitting the numbers, not doing the thing they’re supposed to do. And it’s frustrating and I get it. I really do. It’s like, why do I have to… why do I have to talk to them at all to explain this to them?

Nora: Right. It’s pretty obvious… come to work and come on time.

Paul: Like, yes, if you can.

Nora: But I guess my question would be, what’s your answer to whether the suspension is a good idea, be different, whether this member had written this employee multiple times already for this?

Paul: No, no, no. We would be marching down and understanding. And I give this example sometimes in talks at the front of the room. I’ve actually been in this circumstance. And the problem with me, it was… I was working a job I didn’t want to be in… and I was always late and I was always calling out sick or probably I won’t say always, but probably more often than anybody was comfortable with.

And the the guy sat me down and said, “look, this is the problem. And when you’re not here, somebody else has to do your job.” And kind of went through the thing with me and told me, “look, if you’re late again, any time in the near future, just don’t bother coming to work.” And I did. I came about 8 minutes late and he was waiting for me.

And I walked in the office and he said, “You know why we’re here?” And I was like, “I don’t have a job anymore.” And he was like, “You’re right, you know? And it’s been a pleasure working with you.” And off I went. Right. So I knew it was going to happen. And I think they survived without me. I think they may have found somebody who liked the job, who would show up at work and, you know, the whole thing.

Nora: Right. And a lot of times that’s just the case, right? As the employee’s unmotivated, there’s a lot of other situations that could be… it could be an unstable kind of living environment. Kids… It could be a medical condition. So, you know, and I want I just want to throw that caveat out there because the guidance is always going to change if this is a chronic medical condition.

Paul: But that’s part of the interface, part of the solution to problem is that you’re talking to them and you’re getting some kind of feedback and you’re able to react off the feedback. But I can tell you most of the time it’s like, “I’ll try to do better” or you know what whatever the excuses are, I don’t think that you can punish somebody into doing anything.

We’re not children and the suspension isn’t going to serve that way in a lot of ways. It’s just going to make their life even more difficult. And that’s not really what you’re shooting for here. I mean, now they don’t have any income. They’ve already been maybe making not the best decisions because they’re not getting paid full time anymore. They might not have enough money to make ends meet. Now you’re suspending them. I don’t see how they come back whole. That’s what I’m saying.

Nora: Right. Yeah. You’re potentially making their life even more unstable. At the same time, you’re building resentment, which is just going to make things even worse. Yeah. The best way to deal with these issues is corrective action. It is conversation, and it’s sitting down with them face to face.

Paul: And you march them down this pretty quickly and they get to decide. We have this saying, I’m not telling you. You have to be at work on time from now on. I’m telling you, I’m choosing not to work with anyone who’s not at work on time. You can make the choice that you want to make here, but you have to make the choice to be on time.

Now, that’s at the end. Sometimes folks just need to understand what their role is and how and how it impacts other people. And they can do better. I know that works for me.

Nora: Right? And we want to be careful, too. Because you know what your boss said to you about if you’re late, just don’t come in… It’s not it’s not something I would necessarily recommend because I’m always thinking about legal risk. And maybe the next time you’re late, it’s because you are a victim of domestic violence and you know, that’s protected in your state.

Nora: You don’t want to fire that person.

Paul: Over that.

Nora: Yeah. So you’ve got to be, you know, careful with these types of situations in how you address them.

Paul: Yeah.

Nora: Yeah. And that’s what we’re here for, to kind of walk those intricacies. But the corrective action shouldn’t include a suspension and it shouldn’t include language. Like if you’re late one more time, you’re fired. Because it’s just that’s too strict a rule. And there could be exceptions that you’re going to want to make and also legally potentially required to make.

Paul: So I would for everybody who’s listening… Nora and I come from two different places, she’s compliance. And I would say that I would push back on Nora on the last part that I can’t say to somebody, if you’re late again, you just don’t bother coming in again. So we would fall halfway between that, but it wouldn’t be my go to like my first thing. And I’d have lots of other stuff documented in all these conversations. And it would be my final kind of my final, final.And it would be in writing and it would be supportable and I might put in there because of Nora, darn it, a comma, comma, unless you have a good reason. And there, you know, there is no good reason at some point.

Nora: Yeah, and that’s fine. You can say you know, you’ll most likely be terminated unless…

Paul: I’m going to put the comma in Nora, I hope you’re happy.

Nora: Or even just saying most likely because then it’s not as likelihood. Yes. 100%. 99%.

Paul: Okay. So when is it okay to suspend someone like I think I’ve made it clear this paternal method of suspension to get something for it to punish the meaning of doing it doesn’t work, right?

Nora: Yeah. But there are practical reasons to suspend somebody and the way that I like to look at it is if, if you need to do some sort of investigation into something and that employee cannot be present at the office while you look into that because and you don’t want them being involved in the investigation, you don’t want whatever, you know.

Paul: There could be an Accusation against them and you’re trying to separate them from that.

Nora: Yeah. You don’t want whatever it has been accused to continue happening until you figure it out. So that could be sexual harassment. That could be embezzlement. There’s a ton of things that it could be. And in those situations, and, you know, you get the information that this you know, something needs to be investigated first. And then… you… you go up to the employee and we, we would draft a letter usually for this, explaining the situation and saying you’re going to be suspended pending this investigation.

And then you know, then the question arises of whether that should be paid or unpaid suspension. There’s not really a strict rule for that. You tell me if you disagree Paul, but my understanding is if we investigate and we determine that you are responsible or liable or you know, that basically the claims are true against you, we’re not paying you.

Paul: They will have been without pay. Yeah. So we’re determined while we do this. It could be with or without pay. But I can tell you and we might not use the word suspension, but it is suspension. There have been times when we’ve suspended someone who is the accuser with pay. So we we it’s been we’re… we’re separating you two while we need three days, please just go home. It is with pay. And and that is that is another use of this kind of suspending someone being present in the middle of something that’s going on.

Nora: Yeah, that’s… that’s a really good point because the last thing you want to do is make it look like it’s an adverse action against the accusers. So that’s why you pay.

Paul: Yeah, that’s why you pay.

Nora: So and other reasons.

Paul: Yeah. So, you know, suspension as a tool, not as a punitive measure to get something, but we do use suspension here at CEDR occasionally. It usually denotes that something pretty serious is going on.

Nora: Yes. And, you know, there may be… there always is an example in H.R. that falls outside of these rules that we’re telling you about. So there is a possibility of a suspension being a good idea outside of what we’ve just talked about.

Paul: There is a possibility of it. I can’t think of it right off the top of my head. But there is kind of sometimes a… a circumstance where a suspension is… is it literally is for you to think about whether or not you want to keep coming. It’s not a penalty it is like, “okay, we value you so much, but it’s you’ve gotten so far off track that we want to give you this final opportunity. Why don’t you go take a few days?”

Nora: A sabbatical?

Paul: “Yeah. Go take an unpaid sabbatical and let’s come back together on Tuesday and figure out if you want to keep going.” But again, always an outlier.

Nora: Yeah, exactly. And there’s an infinite amount of fact patterns as we know. And in HR… so and yeah, I think and even that would depend really on the specific employee, their length of employment with you, so many other things that you would want to think about.

Paul: So suspending for… because you’re frustrated and you’re trying to get something from someone we’re a hard no. Suspending because it’s the proper tool methodology at the right time, we’re a yes and then we’re a maybe and a comma… right?

Nora: Right. As always, in H.R..

Paul: Yeah, as always.

Voice Over: Thanks for joining us for this week’s episode of What The Hell Just Happened? do Paul a favor; share this with your network. If you have an HR issue or a question, you’d like us to discuss on this show, send it to podcast@WTHjusthappened.com. For more HR advice and insights from Paul and his team of experts, you can also join the private Facebook group, HR Base Camp, or visit HRbasecamp.com. Make sure you tune in next week. And remember: better workplaces make better lives. 

Jan 4, 2023

Friendly Disclaimer: This information is general in nature and is not intended to provide legal advice or replace individual guidance about a specific issue with an attorney or HR expert. The information on this page is general human resources guidance based on applicable local, state and/or federal U.S. employment law that is believed to be current as of the date of publication. Note that CEDR is not a law firm, and as the law is always changing, you should consult with a qualified attorney or HR expert who is familiar with all of the facts of your situation before making a decision about any human resources or employment law matter.

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