HR Case Study

Yesterday as part of one of my HR modules I did a presentation on a conflict situation  I’d encountered during my career, and how I thought it should be solved. One of the professors made some interesting remarks afterwards, and I’d like to know what you lot think.

So I had worked for almost 3 years for an international company in Nigeria before they transferred me to Australia, but assigned to a Nigerian project headquartered in Lagos. I was employed in Australia under an Australian work contract, subject to Australian law. My position on the project was a largely administrative one with no public interface, and I had nobody reporting to me. A couple of months into the assignment I wrote this post on my blog, which a Nigerian newspaper scooped up and republished without telling me. The post was passed around the Lagos office and read by pretty much everyone. A few days later a senior Nigerian assigned to the project burst into the office of the French project director and demand I be fired, saying he could not work in the same organisation as someone who holds such views of his country.

The question is, how should the project director handle it?

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30 thoughts on “HR Case Study

  1. Reprimand for speaking honestly in a society with a serious aversion to it? No idea honestly.

    That Nigerian post was what got me reading this site, but I never understood what you meant by this line while you were explaining that the “get mine” culture pervades the country:

     I saw wealthy middle-class Nigerians move to ensure drivers did not enjoy a fringe benefit worth about $10 per week.

  2. I never understood what you meant by this line while you were explaining that the “get mine” culture pervades the country:

    The company used to give out tickets to staff, which allowed us to eat in a pretty rotten canteen. They were worth about $2 per day, so $10 per week. A lot of the expats didn’t like the food on offer so used to give their drivers their canteen tickets (drivers had access to the offices), which for them was a big perk as they weren’t earning much. When the Nigerian middle management (who were on serious money even by expat standards) got wind of this, they attempted to shake the drivers down for a cut of the perk.

  3. The question is, how should the project director handle it?

    In a manner suited to the culture of the employee who made the demands. This leaves a lot of leeway:

    1) Explain that Tim is your sister’s husband’s nephew’s wife’s brother, and that firing him is completely out of the question.

    – or –

    2) Tell him that a more senior Nigerian from another clan just submitted paperwork to have *him* fired on the same grounds, but if he leaves now you’ll forget both requests.

    – or –

    3) Explain that you are willing to fire Tim post-haste, except that he’s the only way you have of extracting $32,000,000 (THIRTY-TWO MILLIONS DOLLAERS US) which you just inherited from a Senegalese Prince, but if he’s willing to play Tim’s part, you’ll go ahead and fire Tim anyway. Mind you, this will require him transferring $40,000 to your account first, but don’t worry, it will all be payed back…

  4. Your original post seemed pretty even-handed, and consistent with what I have heard from other people — both Nigerians and expatriates who worked in Nigeria. As you point out, competence can be in short supply among expatriates in a place like Nigeria, so what the French Project Director should do depends a lot on his situation.

    If he was sent to Nigeria because he was one of those useless tossers whom the company (for whatever reason) did not want to get rid of, and thus had no future with the company beyond his current assignment, he should have fired Tim. And made a big deal of it, to win brownie points with the Nigerians.

    If he was a good guy with lots of other opportunities inside & outside the French company, he should have told the complainer to get back to work and stop wasting his Project Director’s time.

    So, what did the Project Director do?

  5. Depends how senior this “senior Nigerian” is, and how replaceable you are. Given that Nigerians are famous for bluster, I’d assume that he’s just trying it on; and I would simply call his bluff and deny his request.

    I’m reminded of James Damore, who also wrote some home truths about his working environment and swiftly got the sack. He was easily replaceable though, and not sacking him could have opened up legal issues for the company.

  6. It’s a potential “disrepute”, and the project manager has to treat it as such. If you’re going to blog under your own name you need to save that kind of anecdata for when there is sufficient distance in time from the company concerned.

    This is where your private law world differs from what is (and should remain) the public/criminal one. There’s nothing criminal or even, on an objective reading, particularly disrespectful about what you wrote, but it does have the potential to damage a contracting party of yours. And people don’t on the whole carry out this kind of discussion objectively.

    I think I’d have asked you to quietly remove the post and tread more carefully while still an employee. There’d be nothing disciplinary unless you failed to comply with said request. To the extent that any of this was the Nigerian’s business, I’d have sold it to him as a rather harder sanction than it was and told him, with your approval, that you’d buy him a beer next time you were there.

  7. Re Damore: the key bit is here: “some home truths about his working environment”

    Our genial host mentions no names at his host company. The thrust of the post – and crucially of the complaint – is about the culture extant in the country at large.

    Thus, the project director could play the daft laddie and inquire as to whether there was corruption in the company – that would be a real concern. If not, then you inquire as to truth of the article more generally. Has the complainant witnessed corruption in Nigeria?

    Then shrug and say “fair’s fair”.

  8. In theory; what’s in the interest of the company and by extension it’s shareholders?

    Given the wide media distribution there is reputational risk, and the company needs local consent to exploit the assets. So I’d consider taking some action to get the post removed and/or be able to claim there had been some kind of punishment. Re-assignment at worst, obviously predicated on policies I should have in place around media etc.

    Then I’d be thinking about the operational use of both you and this Nigerian. Any punishment might be somewhat weighted by that fact, if important.

    I’d probably listen sympathetically to the Nigerian. Try to talk him down a bit, find out what exactly is upsetting him about the piece and what reconciliation avenues might be open. I don’t think I would promise much initially; I’d be wary of people thinking that dramatically bursting into my office is a way to get things done. I might even ask him to step outside, and come back in and make a calm complaint, given it wasn’t me who wrote the article.

    I’d have a bit of a think about the real moral ethics vs practical impact. What you said wasn’t wrong, but has just disrupted my project, so it’s the latter pragmatic problem I really need to solve.

    I did find the idea about ‘going local’ on him funny and I wouldn’t be surprised if the ‘Tim has a powerful uncle’ tactic worked, if combined with much flattery and sympathy. But it’s not me and I don’t know if I could pull it off.

    I’m guessing there’s another angle to this given the question you have posed.

  9. What I think should have happened is the project director should have offered to accept the resignation but asked the irate Nigerian to take a few days to think about it.

    What I think actually happened is he got you transferred to a different project asap and you moved to France a few months later. Or perhaps I’m reading too much into the second paragraph.

  10. 2. Meanwhile

    Why all trust in the Tories has gone

    The Conservative Party used to be on the side of the people against the power of the state, which needed to be under scrutiny and democratic accountability. This required transparency and honesty by government, not deception and cover-up of real intentions. This ideal has clearly been shredded since the Conservatives decided to embrace the 1997 Blairite cultural revolution and to bin basic conservative political morality, an embrace growing stronger and stronger through the Clegg/Cameron administration, Cameron, and then May.

    The state now does as it wishes against the will of the people, often deceptively. The state’s reach into the private and family lives of the public grows alarmingly, under the label of liberalism and freedom but in fact removing freedoms and legitimate diversity of opinion over moral issues…

    It’s like a race to destroy UK quickest

  11. As fun as the suggestions above to go “full Nigerian” back at the offended party, I’m going to try to answer this one seriously.

    How I would handle this if I were the Project Director (which I’m assuming is the ‘peak’ role in the local organisation and therefore any further complaint goes back to HQ), would mainly depend on a bunch of facts seemingly irrelevant to the case;

    1. What do I get my bonus for, what risks that being paid?
    2. How far away is my likely transfer date from this location?
    3. What precedent is there in the company for standing by disputed local management decisions?
    4. If I decide to die in a ditch for a principled stand (for either party), what’s the best and worse case scenarios for me personally?
    5. How much fun can I have with this whilst keeping my job?

    All the other points people have made above are very distant 6th place or lower in my priorities. Anyone who suggests otherwise hasn’t met a human recently.

    We’d like to think we’d ask the Nigerian to document the five most egregious errors in Tim’s blog post and have a conciliatory triparty meeting to work them through, acting like a modern-day King Solomon.

    The reality is we will engage corporate Realpolitik mode and play what’s in front of us. In most scenarios, the person who put his head above the parapet (Tim, in this case) is screwed.

  12. This predicament hinges on two questions:

    Does the Nigerian have the clout to cause real trouble?

    If so, how much does he want?

  13. In the original post you discussed how Nigerians and others, specifically Russians, are corrupt not to mention being ingenious crooks and scammers. On that note the BBC had this for me today

    https://www.bbc.com/news/blogs-news-from-elsewhere-48517926

    ” A criminal case has been launched in Russia’s Arctic region of Murmansk after suspected metal thieves made off with a railway bridge.

    Local prosecutors say the unknown perpetrators removed a metal structure 23m long and weighing 56 tonnes from the bridge – its main central span.”

  14. “The question is, how should the project director handle it?”

    That question cannot be answered, without first reading your employment terms. Seriously, it cant, is there any chance that you could post a redacted copy of your employment agreement at the time, and I will give you my opinion on what I would have done under the circumstances.

    The nationality of you, the Project Director and the complainant are of little relevance from where I would be sitting on this one, other than cultural sensitivities and whether you were in breach of any of your Australian employment terms in this regard. Australian law does not recognize foreign law, so this is a straight up Australian workplace legislation issue.

    The first question I would get answered if it were me that was investigating it, is, is their sufficient evidence that any of the terms of your agreement were breached and what was your response and defence, if any, to these alleged breaches.

    Lets just say that there was a clear and proven breach of your employment terms that you clearly agreed to.

    How serious was it, to what extent was the organisation damaged, did you accept that you had breached your employment conditions and caused your employer harm, have you made amends, have you made a commitment that you would not re-offend and acknowledged that if you did, that you may be instantly terminated? again all depending on the seriousness of the proven breach. What is your overall performance level, other than this allegation is it satisfactory, have you been involved in any similar workplace issues in the past, have you been subject to any other disciplinary issues in the past.

    Then, what are the employers protocols for incidents of this type, did the employer follow them, did the employee follow the agreed disciplinary procedure as well.

    I read that article as well when you posted it, I havent reread it, but I would be looking to see if you disparaged your company, your clients, your suppliers or any other company stakeholders or brought the company name into disrepute and then if your agreement was silent on this, which I doubt it would be, then I would refer to the Fair Work Australia policy on each of the potential breaches.

    Once I had went through all of this, I would take a statement from you and request a statement from the complainant, which most probably would be inadmissible at law, see if there is an amicable solution that can be reached between the parties or not and then brief the Project Director accordingly.

    Then we will be in a position to recommend how the Project Director should proceed with closing out this issue.

  15. @William

    This is clearly the “correct” answer, or at least in the spirit of it. (These may not be the sole or definitive five. A few other additions might involve who is friends with whom, and how tolerant the mood of the higher-ups is at the moment, in case some of the ripples of the ructions reach upstairs in the coming days or weeks.)

    But then, I don’t think the correct “correct answer” to these “what would you do?” questions is ever to say what you’d actually do, since for some reason the person asking it never seems to care what you really would do… a shame really, because it’s a worthwhile question in its own right, particularly if you want to understand the complexities of the incentive structure that’s in place.

  16. Regarding the project director. It seems to me that the average one of those is going to do the absolute minimum to make the problem go away from his in-tray. In this case he’s going to kick it to some HR department somewhere and tell the Nigerian that it’s being handled by HR.

    He’s then going to ignore it and let HR deal with you and/or the Nigerian.

  17. I forgot to mention how much were you on? this is important, not that you need to say, but if its over the threshold then you as an employee cannot apply for an unfair dismissal action against the employer.

    I know that we are not at that point in the process yet, but its important for the employer (Project Director) to know if you have that legal protection or not, if so, then the investigation of the allegation needs to be a lot tighter, if they are going for a termination.

    I have terminated many people in my time and if they are over the threshold then its a lot easier, I have been in the commission on behalf of the employer as well, and have never lost a case*

    Last time I looked the threshold was around $145k ish.

    Also, how long have you been employed under the agreement, if its under a threshold, cant remember what it is, lets say 10 weeks then you do not have unfair dismissal protection either. Or say you are in your probation period and I have seen them being up to six months, then you have no termination protection whatsoever.

    Is the entity that employed you classified as a small business, ie under x number of employees, if so you do not have unfair dismissal protection either.

    Whilst you may not have unfair dismissal protection, you are always protected at law against unlawful termination and an employer must honour any agreed departure terms, say if it says six months pay in lieu of notice, then that is due to you on termination, even if you shot the bastard.

    *I have given the departing employee say a couple of weeks more pay in lieu of notice. This is based on the first round with the commissioner and after he has heard both sides of the story, it is common for him to say to the employer, if you offer a few more weeks, I will recommend to the employee that they accept it and they quite often do.

  18. @Bardon,

    Your instinctive reach for the contract and legal counsel explains a lot of what many of us have pieced together about you from your boastings on here and other places.

    The only time a contract is relevant to the situation described is at the very end of a bunch of other activities. If your instinct is to get there early, you’ve misjudged and mishandled the situation.

  19. “The only time a contract is relevant to the situation described is at the very end of a bunch of other activities. If your instinct is to get there early, you’ve misjudged and mishandled the situation.”

    Not really, the employee has rights and the employer needs to know what they are at the outset when someone senior demands that someone should be terminated.

    The employment agreement and employment law is the legal basis of the relationship between both parties and is there to protect both parties. If an employer does not invest, say half a day absolute max, in understanding what their options at law are in the above situation, then they are cowboys and are not protecting the company, their reputation or their shareholders and will come a cropper sooner or later. Also if the commission becomes aware of employers like this they are black marked.

    In the above situation, Tim has legal rights as well, and the employer ought to know what they are. The very first question that management should answer internally in the above situation is, can we legally terminate Tim as requested by the Big Kahuna or not. Because if its a no, then that narrows down the available options quite significantly right at the outset and saves the company a lot of wasted effort and the Big Kahuna should be informed that his initial request for termination is not possible, which makes it a lot easier to get to the resolution rather than wasting the companies time. This rudimentary check does not require legal counsel.

    Plus Tim and I am not saying for a moment that he is, could be teeing the employer up for a big hit here as well and he wouldn’t be the first employee to do it either.

    I have never been in a company that does not do these rudimentary checks as a matter of course, particularly in a situation like that, where someone senior (if he is) calls for a termination. Similarly, if Tim is hauled up and told that someone senior is calling for his termination, then he should equally find out what his legal rights are in this regard right at the outset.

    Similarly in contracting, the contract is there to protect both parties. When a client tells you that the contract is in the bottom drawer and he will leave it there and just wants to resolve all project issues amicably, he is either lying to you or incompetent and you are not acting in your companies best interests if you dont internally take the short time to check the relevant clause to understand where you stand contractually on an issue, before you move into the next phase.

  20. @Bardon,

    2 highly-paid ex pats and a highly-paid local are in dispute.

    The one piece of information not relevant to this situation for 99% of the duration of said dispute is anyone’s contract of employment.

    That you don’t understand this explains your current employment status.

  21. I just read the OP again, it said that a Nigerian had just burst in and demanded that the Project Director sack Tim. So at this stage Tim isn’t aware of this demand, as the PD has just received it, so we have one complainant only. I for the life of me cant see anywhere in the OP where it says that there are three staff members in dispute.

  22. Barton with your retirement are you interested in part time work. It would be employment litigation only, cases you are already familiar with.

    If you would could we arrange to communicate through Tim?

    Tim would you mind?

    Mike

  23. “Anyone who suggests otherwise hasn’t met a human recently.”

    Well, some of us work in small companies with people who are (1) mostly reasonable, (2) have not yet gone full-woke and (3) are prepared to do more than the bare minimum to cover their own asses.

    Bardon, I think the point is the situation can be handled with less than half a day effort from all parties involved. We’ve all put ourselves here in the shoes of the project manager, and I suspect the varied responses reflect mostly what we think would fly in our own organizations first, and personal preference second. You included. My impression is you are a cut-and-thrust negotiator with clients but strictly by-the-book internally. I’m the other way around, perhaps, because I prefer to do the work and let someone else do the boring money talk. William’s “what gives me the easiest day/suits my interests most” approach is actually something we are all guilty of, but what that is is different in different places.

    I would also be biased by Tim’s past performance. If I think Tim sucks, this could be an excuse to get rid of a non-hacker who does not pack the gear to serve in my beloved corps. Except, I have years of track record of taking those people and turning them into functional human beings and star employees. I don’t know or care if that’s a good financial investment, but its some of the most gratifying work I have ever done, to the extent that when I have a remedial in my care, it’s what gets me out of bed in the morning. And I’ve done it for vastly more people than I’ve recommended for the firing squad.

    Tim’s clearly not even close to the level of dysfunction I am thinking about, and I think would be resistant to my form of magic, so is more likely to have nominated himself for the non-hacker category, if this isn’t fixable. Sorry, Tim. Were you at my place it would be relatively easy to ensure you and Mr Nigerian didn’t have to work together, and that would probably be the solution of least resistance. Alongside you not pissing off my other employees quite so readily.

  24. @Mike

    Yes I would be interested in discussing it with you, if I can be of any assistance to you or just exchange information and network somehow. Are you are aware that I am based out of Brisbane.

    The industrial law partner that I consulted with on my separation from my previous firm has asked me to do some consultancy work for his firm as well when I am ready to in that part of the world. He specializes in industrial law, although the role that we discussed was mediation between employers, employees and trade unions to avoid costly industrial disputes as opposed to employment litigation primarily in the mining sector. My background is very much construction contracting and I am not a lawyer.

    Not sure if that throws up some jurisdiction issues for you or not.

    Privacy is very important for me, my previous firm had a clause in my agreement that I could not discuss any aspects of my employment on any public platform so I just cant have my personal details out there.

    I know its old fashioned these days, but our execs used to use Wickr for privacy and sensitive info. that would be the best way to establish initial direct contact with me. My address on there is bardon99.

    https://wickr.com/

  25. @BiG

    The point that I am not doing that well at trying to make is, the complaint, like most that are formally raised in the workplace should be investigated and if Tim was found to have seriously breached his contract terms, and we do not know yet if he has or not, then there could very well be strong grounds for terminating him fairly quickly.

    Especially so if it keeps the peace in Nigeria and he is out of sight and easily replaced in his Melbourne role, no offense intended Tim. If he had a clause like mine in his agreement, he would have been down the road for far more innocuous posts than that Nigerian one.

    And if Tim had not breached his terms and the firm were being heavy handed with him on it, and he was that way inclined, he could claim victimization, go on stress leave for as long as he wanted on 80% of full pay, and never ever be terminated.

  26. @William

    Glad someone was entertained! Having re-read the original Nigeria posts, I would like to expand my suggestions to try and cover the whole field of “full Nigerian”.

    4) Explain that Tim is the sister’s husband’s nephew’s wife’s brother of the PRESIDENT OF NIGERIA, etc. etc.

    5) Explain that the CEO of the Lagos branch got to Tim first, and a full 50% of Tim’s salary is now going to him, and if Tim quits because someone else tries to siphon off him, the CEO will be furious.

    6) Tell him not to worry, because the superintendent of the housing complex where Tim lives is in Melbourne an expat Nigerian, and he’d already gotten a link to the post from a dozen other people by the time you sent it to him, and he promises the results will be hi-la-ri-ous! There’s a betting pool on whether he’ll sabotage the sewage, or the car, or just cut things short by fiddling with the electrical system. He’s promised video footage, the and the livefeed from Tim’s bathroom is already up.

    7) Borrowing from Hector, tell him there’s a voodoo ceremony to curse Tim tonight at 11:30 in an abandoned warehouse near the docks. If he comes back to complain next day, tell him he got the wrong warehouse, but there’s another ceremony tonight in a dead-end alley in the heart of the industrial zone.

    @Bardon

    I’m with William on this one. You say “someone senior demands that someone should be terminated” as if this were a self-evident fact, simply because someone senior has come in and demanded that someone should be terminated (hahaha). It is, in fact, an interpretation, and there are other interpretations: The Nigerian wants to vent his spleen, the Nigerian wants to avenge an insult, etc. To say that he has initiated legal action is not self-evident. Consider a hypothetical example: The Nigerian comes in, and says “Did you see what Tim wrote? I want to f***ing murder that ***hole!!!”. Should he be jailed for uttering death threats? Is he attempting to recruit you into a conspiracy to commit murder? Or is he just venting anger in an unguarded fashion? Not every statement ought to be treated as if it were uttered under oath in court. Though to be fair, most modern HR policies now require exactly that.

    @OP

    The Nigerian articles were great. I hadn’t realized how far back I’d trawled this blog when I first discovered it. I must have started reading a year or two ago, and I went backwards all the way to 2013. The original article also has a reference to Kate Fox’s “Watching the English”, I book which I bought and read (and enjoyed) because I found a recommendation for it online. I’d always assumed I found that recommendation in an article by Theodore Dalrymple (or something like that), but now that I think about it, it’s possible I got it from here.

  27. Glad someone was entertained!

    I was too!

    I’d always assumed I found that recommendation in an article by Theodore Dalrymple (or something like that), but now that I think about it, it’s possible I got it from here.

    I am quite happy for people to confuse my articles with those of Theodore Dalrymple!

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