Lessons from Jury Duty

Happy Holidays!

I was recently privileged to serve just over two weeks of jury duty.  No, that’s not a sarcastic comment.  It took a lot of time and a huge amount of energy (when you have to pay close attention for up to six hours of sometimes boring testimony, you’re really tired by the end of the day).  But from a very personal standpoint it was absolutely worth it:

  • I learned a huge amount about our legal system – it’s complicated, cumbersome, puzzling and amazing in what it accomplishes with the involvement of a group of citizen peers.
  • I had the opportunity to meet 12 very impressive people: my fellow jurors were all bright, thoughtful, and committed to analyzing the evidence and making the best possible decisions.
  • I sat in judgment (literally) in an employment law case (yes, I too was shocked not to have been booted off the jury, but very pleased I was allowed to stay).   Throughout the trial I was reminded many times about what can go terribly wrong when the employer doesn’t comply with some of the basic tenets of good human resource management.

So, I thought I’d pass these reminders on while they’re fresh in my mind:

  1. Be clear about the expectations you have for each employee.  Discuss them with the employee well before they have to be met, have the employee repeat them back to you in their own words to be sure you both understand them the same way.  Then write them down and ask the employee to sign that they understand and have received them (not necessarily that they agree with them.)
  2. Be clear about the ramifications for the employee if he/she does not meet your expectations. 
  3. Give regular feedback to the employee about how well he/she is meeting the expectations, and listen to what they say to know whether more support is needed.
  4. Provide regular and timely performance appraisals in which you evaluate how well the employee has met your expectations.  It’s a great idea to get employee input into these appraisals, but in the end part of your responsibility as the employer is to evaluate your employee’s performance.  If you do include a section on the written appraisal where the employee comments, clearly identify that section as the employee’s input.
  5. Act at the first sign that the employee is failing to meet your expectations.  Discuss the issue with the employee, offer support to help him/her meet the expectations, obtain a plan from the employee that delineates how the expectations will be met, set a timeline with additional meetings for follow-up, and be very clear about consequences for not meeting the expectations in the allotted time.  Then follow the plan you have outlined.
  6. Document.  Document.  Document. Document.  Document.  This does not mean you have to write volumes.  Keep a log page on your computer in which you summarize conversations with the employee.  Some employers even find it useful to give a copy of the page to the employee so that he/she can be very clear about the employer’s perspective on each interaction.
  7. If you need to take disciplinary action up to and including termination, be sure you have the documentation and that you are acting on facts, not emotions.  Even in an employment-at-will setting, you can not discipline someone for illegal reasons (race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, age, disability, retaliation, whistleblowing…).  And, even if you don’t think you’re acting illegally, carefully examine how your action looks to the employee.  If it looks like you’re acting on an illegal basis, the employee will likely believe that you are and may take action against you (read: file a lawsuit). 

Our system has been set up to provide the courts as last resort for resolving such issues.  However, let me tell you from my recent experience that although my respect for our legal system has grown as a result of serving on a jury, it is incredibly clear to me that going this route is extremely painful (emotionally, professionally and financially) for both plaintiff and defendant as their personal and professional lives are laid open in front of a group of strangers who will then make judgments about them. 

Bottom line:  we have a great system, but as an employer you want to do things right to minimize the risk that your employee will drag you there.

Have you been involved in these kinds of issues as an employer or an employee?  Have you learned from your experience on jury duty? Share your thoughts with us!  ~ Daphne Schneider

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