Published DateBy Edward D. Alkalay
This past fall the Conway Public Library was involved in an employment dispute that united the community in support of four librarians. Many readers are aware of the basic facts: the library board of trustees in consultation with the then-library director voted to have four long-term employees "restructured" out of their jobs. The library director was then to hire a new staff based on new job descriptions. I represented the four librarians who had worked at the Conway Public Library for a combined 80-plus years. The community erupted in outrage once this decision was announced, and eventually, the restructuring was dropped, the four librarians retained their jobs and the library director resigned with a severance package.
As this controversy proceeded this past fall, I often thought of how the entire dispute could have been easily avoided, and did not have to come to the difficult resolution that it did. This is typically the case in many employment disputes. So, with that in mind, this article will provide some suggestions on how employers can avoid disputes with employees, save money and maintain good will in the community.
1. Employers must communicate effectively with employees. This does not mean that an employer or supervisor needs to consult with employees about every decision, but employees should have at least some input in decisions that will affect their jobs. For example, in the library case, one of the main reasons that the library director and the trustees provided for the restructuring was to modernize the library and provide better technology to patrons. However, as I became immersed in the case, I learned that all four librarians were in favor of bringing better technology to the library and in favor of a restructuring to do so!
Because the librarians had no input in the restructuring process, two negative things occurred. First, the director and the board of trustees did not have valuable input from experienced librarians and second, the four librarians were blindsided when they were told that they were being discharged. (Although the word discharge was not used by the library director, in this case, restructuring really meant termination with the unlikely possibility of rehire.) Had the trustees and the director consulted with the four librarians, they would have received input into the process. Just as importantly, the librarians would not have felt like they were being cast aside, but would have had an active role in the restructuring. In fact, it is likely that there would be a restructuring occurring right now rather than a budget battle over legal fees and severance costs.
2. Employers must be cognizant of how their actions will be perceived in the community. Whether an employer is a municipality, a private business, or a non-profit, one of the most valuable commodities that it has is the good will that it generates in the community. Good will creates an atmosphere of trust between the employees, the public and the employer. If the employer is a non-profit or a municipality, this will likely result in more donations or additional public funds. If the employer is a private business, it will result in greater profits. Whether you are a public employer or a private employer, the last thing that you want to do is anger community members and receive bad publicity.
In the library's situation, the four librarians were all long-term employees who were (and are) well-loved. The four librarians had enormous good will built over many years of service that resulted in the full support of patrons of the library. Employers must always remember that their employees help to create the good will that results in a successful operation.
3. Employers must be very careful when they hire employees. Admittedly, I know nothing about the hiring process used to select the previous library director, but it became apparent this fall that she was not the right person for the job. It is critical not to rush into hiring any employee. A resume should be fact-checked. References should be called. And, if possible, there should be a lengthy interview process to discern not only an applicant's intelligence, but also as much as possible about an applicant's ability to work well with others in the organization (and to supervise others if that is part of the job description).
4. Avoid law suits. If an employment dispute is headed toward potential litigation, it almost always makes sense to resolve the dispute as quickly as possible. In the case of the library, the trustees made the right decision by offering the library director a severance package and presumably asking her to resign. It is critical after an employment mistake has been made to rectify it as quickly as possible. Perhaps the library trustees and the former library director made a poor decision regarding the restructuring, but resolving it quickly was important. Although it hurts to provide the library director with a severance package, the alternative (a lengthy law suit) would have been worse. If a dispute arises, resolving it quickly is critical.
5. Successful businesses depends on a positive relationship between supervisors and employees. When employees respect their supervisors and supervisors respect their employees, good things happen. At the Conway Public Library last fall, there was a perceived or actual lack of respect and the result was purely negative both from an emotional and financial stand point. If you look at successful business around town, you will invariably see supervisors and employees who work together very well. For example, at the Conway Recreation Department, everyone seems to work very well together, and the result is many positive programs for children in the community. If you look at the profitable businesses around town, you will invariably find similar camaraderie within the staff. It is critical for an organization to work together at every level of the business.
6. Resolve minor disputes quickly before they mushroom into major disputes. Even the best organizations have minor disputes. That is simply human nature. We all have bad days and make mistakes. However, when a dispute or problem occurs, resolve the issue as quickly as possible. At the library, there were warning sign early on that all was not well. A phrase used often during the fall meetings was that the "band-aid needed to be ripped off." A well-run organization should not need to "rip a band aid off" because minor changes made along the way resolve disputes quickly and quietly. Whether that be done through employment evaluations, one-on-one meetings, or in any other manner, supervisors and employers should be active in discovering, addressing and resolving issues before they become a problem.
The Conway Public Library will survive last fall's dispute. It is a well-loved public organization that will retain public support. However, if it were a private business it may have irreparably damaged its good will. Employers must always seek to avoid or quickly resolve employment disputes. It can take years to develop good will within the community. But it takes only one nasty employment dispute to destroy that good will in a day.