A number of years ago – long before we became aware of the HIV/AIDS pandemic, an IR manager for a manufacturing company, was approached by an engineering foreman. The foreman wanted him to arrange for a disciplinary enquiry to ‘get rid of’ one of the workers in his department.
When asked for the reason, the foreman’s reply was “He is useless”. Further questioning revealed that the employee was weak and unable to lift the heavy objects he was required to in his job. He was also forever ‘loafing and leaving the hard work to others’. He had been given a number of verbal and written warnings but had failed to mend his ways.
Instead of arranging a disciplinary enquiry, the IR officer referred the employee to the company doctor for a medical examination. This revealed that the employee had tuberculosis. Interestingly, the employee had not complained to anyone about feeling ill, nor had he taken sick leave.
While the employee was receiving treatment in hospital, the foreman and another employee from the department also fell ill and ended up in the same hospital with the employee – with tuberculosis! Is there a lesson there somewhere?
In another similar incident in a textile factory, the HR officer was approached by a frustrated department manager about a ‘useless’ forklift driver whom he had had ‘enough of’. Apparently the driver was forever making mistakes, forgetting things and on a number of occasions had caused damages to product by ‘his carelessness’.
According to the manager, he been given a number of chances but had not responded to the warnings. As the driver had long service, the manager wanted another job to be found for him (but not in his department!).
Acting on a hunch, the HR officer referred the employee for a medical. This revealed that the employee had dangerously high blood pressure. The employee was immediately hospitalised. The doctor was amazed that the employee had been able to make it to work at all as he was on the verge of a heart attack!
In another well reported incident in the early 90’s an employee was sent home for
allegedly being under the influence of alcohol. He suffered a diabetic seizure and
collapsed a short distance from the factory. Clearly officials did not realize that the symptoms of a person whose blood sugar is too low are similar to those of someone under the influence.
When conducting certain of our training courses, our facilitators screen an overhead dealing with the causes of employee shortcomings. This includes things like inadequate training, poor communication, personal, family and financial problems, inadequate feedback and so on. They always make a point of covering the block covering ILL-HEALTH and then ask learners what is covered. Without help, few groups identify ill-health as a major cause of employee shortcomings!
Typically, managers take the view that if the employee is a ‘good guy’, then any performance deficiency must be a training problem. If the employee is perceived to be a ‘bad guy’, the usual response is to take disciplinary action. However, employee shortcomings can be triggered by a number of other factors, one of which is ill-health.
Not every employee who is ill takes time off or complains of his or her illness. Some are fearful of losing their jobs so they mistakenly attend work even though they are sick. They go through the motions but they are simply not able to meet job requirements. Taking disciplinary action against such employees is simply not appropriate.
The HIV/AIDS pandemic has further complicating matters.
An employee who is in the early stages of AIDS may appear to be physically fit and healthy but may suffer AIDS dementia whereby the virus attacks the victim’s brain. Typical symptoms reported of employees in this condition are forgetfulness; abnormal behaviour including mood swings, tantrums and even violence; lethargy (slowness) and disinterest in work matters, all of which can result in disciplinary action being taken against the employee.
To complicate matters further, employees who contract AIDS sometimes absent themselves from work (often without permission) in order to attend traditional healers situated in remote rural areas.
Unless he has just won the jackpot, no employee in his right mind deliberately sets out to get himself dismissed! Where an employee’s performance or behaviour deteriorates, there has to be a reason. Ill-health can be a major contributory factor and this possibility should not be overlooked.
All this is making the jobs of line management and supervisors that more difficult and they need appropriate training to handle employee shortcomings. Dealing with ill-health and incapacity is covered in B&As highly popular course, Managing Poor Performance and Incapacity. For further information contact your local B&A office at Durban (031-3094627), Johannesburg 0861-474722, Cape Town 021-5270044, Port Elizabeth 041-3682019, Kokstad 039-7271773, Margate 039-3122698, Richards Bay 035-7531255 or click here.