Photo Credit - Daria Shevtsova
Photo Credit – Daria Shevtsova

I regularly speak on the issues of employment and human rights law, but it turns out that lawyers really do end up with a warped view of the world. 

Yesterday I spoke on a panel of HR and people-management thought leaders: David D’Souza, Anna Petosa and Shaun Scott, moderated by Chris Taylor of Actionable. I was the only lawyer on the panel, which makes sense since lawyers are not typically people-management thought leaders.  In fact, I was surprised at how divergent some of our views were.  

The modern workplace requires innovation, agility and creativity when it comes to employee engagement, learning and development, how to accept and embrace the high turnover, gig economy, and how to stop generalizing generations.  I agree with this, and believe an organization will only grow and thrive when it can figure out how to engage all individuals, not just certain demographics or generations.  

My co-panelists rightly emphasised the benefit of individualized and customized learning and development, the value of more frequent, less formal feedback, and the role of peer mentoring and review.  These aspects of a forward-thinking workplace each help with attracting talent, retaining that talent and infusing the organization with knowledge and expertise.

So what do you do when an individual employment relationship goes south?  This is where the dour lawyer comes in.  All those informal meetings providing career development feedback are great.  Are they written down?  Are expectations mutual, or is the organization inadvertently trying to use these interactions as focus groups for long term workforce development?  If so, are these conversations and the soliciting of what will engage and satisfy an employee creating expectations to which the employee believes they are now entitled?  When ideas are raised, are they agreed to, or do both sides of the table understand this may be just a brainstorming session? Is bespoke learning and development modifying the contractual relationship by adding on new duties, augmenting a role, providing greater responsibility – but no increase in pay?

I’m fully aware that these questions sound cranky and old-school.  I’m also fully aware that the vast majority of time, the benefits of sophisticated and deeper employee engagement outweigh worries of a future and possibly remote legal battle.

But – there’s always a legal but – I so often see situations that have unnecessarily become nasty and expensive for the employer, largely because of broken telephone, misunderstood expectations and most people’s preference to avoid conflict and difficult conversations along the way.  

A large global organization can absorb the cost of a very difficult termination. For a small employer, it can be devastating financially, from a time resource perspective, and general employee morale.  

There is great value in much more frequent, informal feedback designed to develop careers, not to build a case against an employee.  When a termination becomes unavoidable, however, a bit of evidence is awfully handy.  

True, companies shouldn’t organize their whole system around the rogue employee, and rather, should build systems that are based on trust and on the assumption that employees want to thrive.

All I suggest is that in the midst of embracing the modern workforce, that leaders also document mutual expectations to ensure clarity, to make sure everyone is on the same page.  A friendly follow-up email, a check-in through the company IM platform, or at the least, a follow-up discussion that references the agreed upon expectations, goals and deliverables will let everyone have the best of both worlds – regular check-ins AND clarity.  

What is a natural corollary of bespoke and individual learning and development and flexible job roles, is that we all have bespoke and individual minds that view the world from our own individual lenses.  It remains important to have a method to sort out the disputes that do occasionally arise from all those individual perspectives, while focusing on the engagement and development of the workforce generally.