Should Big Brother Be Watching?

May 20, 2009

Judy Dahl

CUs walk a fine line when disciplining employees for personal behavior.

A group of credit union employees stopped at a bar after work. A scuffle with the establishment’s owner ensued, resulting in the group’s ejection. Because the employees wore shirts featuring their credit union’s logo during the skirmish, the credit union disciplined several staffers and terminated the ringleader.

Nothing like this real-life example has occurred at $127 million asset New Orleans Firemen’s Federal Credit Union in Metairie, La., says Chenise Hamilton, director of human resources (HR). But the credit union has policies in place governing this type of situation.

“It’s a touchy subject,” she says. “How do you decide which employees to discipline? You don’t want to expose the credit union to allegations of unfair labor practices.”

Hamilton; Linda Amoroso, vice president of HR for $855 million asset Gesa Credit Union, Richland, Wash.; and Don Larsen, vice president of HR at $919 million asset Local Government Federal Credit Union, Raleigh, N.C., discuss how to handle this sensitive issue.

Q When should personal behavior be a performance issue?

Larsen: When the behavior has a direct impact on job performance or when the action damages the credit union’s reputation or jeopardizes members’ trust in the credit union. The facts may vary significantly from case to case, so the line you walk isn’t stationary.

Each circumstance is different, and we’d look at each individually. I don’t believe a “one size fits all” solution would be prudent.

Hamilton: As HR professionals, we’re here to hire, train, and retain, not to police employees’ personal lives. Our policies prohibit employees from conducting themselves in an immoral manner when on credit union premises or time, so we’d have to address personal behavior if employees violated these or other credit union policies.

If something happened at a conference or meeting, or at an event where employees were wearing credit union apparel and representing the credit union, we’d have to decide if the actions negatively impacted the credit union. To decide if we’d discipline the employees, we’d look at how the credit union was impacted and whether staff were violating credit union policy, such as disclosing confidential information.

If the employees were in violation, we’d handle the situation according to our progressive disciplinary policy.

Amoroso: It depends on what the action was, whether it was reportable to law enforcement, or if it put the credit union in a negative business position. Our policies identify what actions may cause an investigation, discipline, or other adverse action.

We require all employees to read and sign a conflict-of-interest policy statement, and we have an ethics policy in place to identify unethical conduct or a potential conflict of interest. We reserve the right to determine when an employee’s outside activities represent a conflict with Gesa’s interests and to take whatever action is necessary to resolve the situation.

Q Does your CU monitor social networking sites for employee comments?

Larsen: We currently don’t monitor any social networking sites. And while it may be a growing practice to use networking sites as a method of reference checking, we haven’t engaged in that practice.

Hamilton: No, and we have no plans to do so. We don’t want to open up that can of worms. We’d rather not see what’s on their personal pages. What if an employee says, “You saw my site, but these 10 employees have worse things on theirs.”

Also, the information often isn’t reliable. Someone could put information on your Facebook site. We’re required to protect employees’ personal privacy, so we have to tread very carefully.

Q What if an employee posted negative comments about the CU?

: That would violate a personnel policy: You can’t make any discrediting statements about the credit union or its personnel, on or off premises. We’d go through the steps of our disciplinary policy, depending on the severity.

If it wasn’t severe, we’d discuss it with the employee and ask the person to remove the comments and refrain from making further negative comments. I doubt it would go further than a written warning.

Amoroso: We’d follow our usual investigative process and policies. If necessary, we’d take disciplinary action up to and including termination. We’d also be careful to learn from the incident and tighten any areas of policy or process that would prevent this in the future. The key to “stuff happening” is to learn from it.

Larsen: First and foremost, we wouldn’t overreact. We’d counsel the employee unless the comments were so egregious that they severely damaged the credit union’s reputation and standing with members. In that circumstance, a more stringent and swift reaction might be warranted.

Q How does your CU address excess Internet use or personal e-mails?

Amoroso: Staff are responsible, extremely busy—no downtime to get into trouble—and aware of Internet and e-mail boundaries. Nothing offensive is allowed: nothing sexual in nature or intent, no hate sites or e-mails, and no gigantic, system-clogging blasts or attachments.

All e-mail must have the name and title of the sender in it. Executive managers can monitor staff’s Internet use if they suspect misuse. Just as insurance companies understand the term “reasonable and customary,” management understands the term “excessive use.”

There will be occasions when someone breaks the rules and discipline does occur. The level of discipline is determined by the nature of the offense.

Larsen: That hasn’t been a significant issue. We have an Internet use policy in place that’s communicated to employees. It states we have the right to monitor use, and violation of the policy would result in disciplinary action, up to and including termination.

However, unless an employee’s performance is suffering or they’re not being responsive to members and/or staff, we most likely wouldn’t monitor use. What’s “excessive” would be driven primarily by the adverse effect their use may have on performance.

Hamilton: We block explicit Web sites, monitor employee use, and address excessive time, especially on social sites. People need the Internet for their job functions, so we only talk to those where it appears excessive. We rank employees’ use, look at the top 10 users each month, and review the types of sites they visit. If it appears inappropriate, HR and the managers discuss it with the employees.

Q What other advice do you offer?

: No two situations will be the same. Look at each one individually to determine the best course of action. Although situations may be unique, the credit union must demonstrate consistency when dealing with them.

Hamilton: Be prepared with appropriate policies. Review them regularly with employees so they remember what they’ve agreed to.

Amoroso: This is a gray area for many HR professionals so it pays to have good policies in place, a fantastic employment law attorney for consultation, and clear expectations communicated to employees regarding behavior and performance.

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