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Learn from Employee Relations Disasters: 4 Lessons

Apr 28, 2014
Deb Muller


Employee Relations is not for the faint of heart. Employees are human after all and humans have been called “the ultimate variable” put a few, or hundreds or thousands of variables together, as we do every day in corporate America, and it’s…well it’s why we have a job.

Fortunately, like any profession, management, leadership and even some elements of HR can be learned. Lucky for us, there is no dearth of HR stories making the news every day, from disgruntled employees to legal precedence, it’s easy to find the lessons hidden…if you’re looking:


The decision by a regional director of the National Labor Relations Board says that football players at the Big Ten school qualify as employees under federal law and can legally unionize.

“Based on the entire record in this case, I find that the Employer’s football players who receive scholarships fall squarely within (federal labor law’s) broad definition of ‘employee,” Peter Sung Ohr, the NLRB regional director.

Players argued that their scholarships are compensation and coaches are their managers.

What we can learn: An employee is generally regarded by law as someone who receives compensation for a service and is under the direct control of managers. Pay attention to these decisions as it may affect your contingent workforce and how you treat contract workers.


Remember in 2009 how a couple of employees did some very not nice things to a lot of customer food…and put it on YouTube? There was customer outrage and the employees were quickly fired but what else could have been done?

What we can learn: Chances are, these were bad (and I do mean BAD hires) and sometimes in a fast-paced, low-wage environment, that can’t be helped. And since the large majority of employees wouldn’t dream of doing what these two clowns did, retraining on hygienic working conditions would have minimal impact. What can potentially help is providing training and education on social media to your corporate team and to those who think that their twitter, facebook and youtube are magically invisible to employers…and customers. In fact, Domino’s received PR kudos for their crisis management during the veritable brand post-mortem.


In this case, the employee was totally at fault. On FMLA, the employee went on a pre-paid, pre-planned vacation that was doctor approved. What she did next got her fired: she posted pictures of herself holding two grandchildren, drinking beer and clearly standing and walking – all the things her “disability” allegedly prevented her from doing. (Read the entire story here.)

She also complained about not getting a get-well card. Her employer responded thusly:

“the staff were waiting until you came back from your vacation in Mexico to determine the next step. Since you were well enough to travel on a 4+ hour flight, wait in customs lines, bus transport, etc., we were assuming you would be well enough to come back to work.”

She was terminated, sued her employer. And lost.

What we can learn: While we can all appreciate the satisfaction the manager probably felt sending the “gotcha” email response to this employee, most times you are better served to not lower yourself to the deviating employee’s level. Getting HR and legal involved in this issue would have presumably led to appropriate notification to the employee of her violation of company policy (lying…) and the resulting termination of her employment – potentially avoiding the messy and stressful lawsuit that likely consumed employee time, legal costs and exposed the company to potential risk.


In 2007, a former Dell kiosk employee sent a list of 22 confessions to which listed the ways Dell employees are trained to use techniques to get bigger sales from unsuspecting customers. It set off a PR firestorm when Dell asked the magazine to remove the article… but in the back of my mind, I was curious why the conversation hadn’t started even sooner, like between the obviously disgruntled Dell employee and his manager, or even between HR and the employee.

What we can learn: It has never been easier to collect feedback from all corners of your organization. From free engagement tools to anonymous case submission platforms to micro-pulse surveys; you have the tools available to find out just what your employees think of your new sales policy or how they might react to a brand new process change.

Employee relations is even more important as a prevention for the types of situations above. Use your knowledge wisely and learn from these crazy situations. Have you ever faced an employee relations disaster? How did you handle it?

Deb Muller
Deb Muller is the CEO of HR Acuity, employee relations case management and investigations software that combines documentation, process, and human expertise so organizations can meet the challenge of managing employee relations in the modern world.

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