Case Study

The remarkable case of a ’strong recruit’ who turned into a disaster

It’s a situation that every employer dreads: A strong recruit failing to perform, blaming others, and losing customers at a rate of knots. When this happened at Adelaide-based law firm Jones Harley Toole, all attempts to help the employee turn around failed.

Instead, the person bit back with a bullying accusation.

This is the story of how Red Wagon Workplace Solutions helped solve an extremely difficult problem.

The background

Jones Harley Toole is a law firm with a very long standing in South Australia, though over time it has been known as different organisations. Established as Ward & Partners, the firm merged with Hunt & Hunt in 2001. Then, in 2016, the firm made a decision to focus on local clients’ needs, rather than a national brand. This meant splitting away from Hunt & Hunt, and regaining its independence, this time as Jones Harley Toole (JHT).

Like many small-to-medium-sized enterprises, Jones Harley Toole’s Office Manager took on the Human Resources mantle. However, in splitting away from a national organisation and its infrastructure, JHT recognised that it didn’t have an in-house, technical HR capability.

This weakness is something that JHT recognised. Managing Partner Brenton James, explained what this means, by cross-referencing the firm’s finance function.

‘I have a finance manager and he does the day to day finance, but I have an external CFO firm that looks after the more technical issues, the strategic issues,’ said Brenton. ‘That works very well in the finance section. That’s not dissimilar to the principle we use Susan [at Red Wagon Workplace Solutions] for. Every once in a while you need that more specialist expertise, and that’s what Susan helps us with.’

Jones Harley Tool’s HR Manager, June Walsh, explained that Red Wagon Workplace Solutions is their go-to on complicated matters.

‘To a degree, I do performance management,’ said Walsh. ‘But when it comes in for the really tough stuff, then we call on Susan. We’ve had to call on her for a couple of occasions, and we also seek her advice.’

The challenge: Bullying, and difficult people

This very serious case was of an employee who accused the HR Manager, June Walsh, of bullying. This was immediately a problem, because the firm’s HR Manager couldn’t handle the investigation, due to the conflict of interest.

The employee in question was employed through JHT’s preferred recruitment channels. The employee came with very strong references, and appeared to be extremely impressive. The person hit the ground running.

However, it became evident very quickly that the employee was going to be a problem.

‘This person was disorganised, very quick to blame their team for mistakes that really were their own mistakes,’ recalled James. ‘We were getting phone calls from clients expressing concerns about the surprising drop in the quality of service, which had been so good for so long.’

The impact of the new employee on the JHT’s customer base was significant. They saw financial fall-out very quickly.

‘We could have lost half of our clients in the mortgage centre,’ explained Walsh, who felt the need to emphasise the impact: ’I tried to performance manage this person, but they got quite nasty and violent in their language, and accused me of bullying. So I said to Brenton, “we need help with this”.’

James explained that their attempts to help the employee were brushed off.

On the surface this doesn’t sound much; unfortunately the challenge went a lot deeper. It wasn’t just that the employee was hard to manage; this person exhibited behavioural issues that were extremely difficult.

‘We needed to performance manage a person who came with very strong background and referees, who knew what to say and how to say it to make themselves look good, who was very quick to identify that the fault was with the other people, and who was quite aggressive in our attempts to direct or manage them into better behaviours,’ he explained. ‘And that’s almost the worst combination of performance management persons that you can get.’

The solution: Find a specialist to help achieve the best outcome

What Jones Harley Toole needed was an Industrial Relations specialist. They needed someone who knew:

  • what can be said
  • how to say it
  • how to manage the meeting
  • how to bring the matter to a close as quickly as possible.

As June Walsh explained, the process isn’t as simple as going into a meeting with an outcome in mind.

‘You’ve got to be fluid in the way it’s conducted, and perhaps allow the employee an opportunity to improve,’ she pointed out. ‘All of that sort of stuff I just don’t have enough experience in. But I’m aware of it. If we didn’t know Susan, it would have been very difficult to find someone.’

Susan Sadler at Red Wagon Workplace Solutions was already known to JHT. This knowledge alone wasn’t enough to just ‘bring her in’ as a specialist advisor. The key attribute they were looking for – beyond technical skill – was cultural fit.

‘It was also because of her presentation and personality,’ said Brenton James. ‘We’re fairly strong on culture here. If she wasn’t a good cultural fit, we wouldn’t have progressed with the discussions. So, it’s probably a combination. She needed the skillset, but she also needed to be a person who we could actually work with,’ he went on. ‘If she wasn’t strong on either of those, we wouldn’t have continued.’

Jones Harley Toole was looking for someone who could handle potentially aggressive communication situations without also becoming hard and aggressive.

‘We needed someone who had the right balance of being supportive in their views – trying to work out solutions for the employee – but also, when it came to needing to play a more formal role, was able to do that successfully as well,’ explained James more fully.

In looking for someone to work with them, Brenton James explained that finding the right “type” of HR person is part of the battle.

On the one hand, there are employer-focused consultants, which JHT has found unhelpful because they invariably create disgruntled employees. On the other hand, there are employee-focused consultants, who are also unhelpful because of kid-glove or pampering requests that are both unnecessary and unfinancial.

‘Susan’s strength, apart from her expertise, is in understanding that being engaged by the employer means that she needs to understand the roles and rights of the employer but still manage a successful HR process,’ said Brenton. ’I think that’s what I’ve been impressed with.’

The outcome: What results did Red Wagon Workplace Solutions deliver?

The ultimate outcome of Red Wagon’s engagement with JHT is that the employee resigned.

By the time Red Wagon was engaged to assist the firm, JHT had already begun their performance management program.

This firm has a structured performance management process. Throughout the process, the employee may bring a support person with them. In the first meeting, JHT lays out what hasn’t been done and what’s required. They then allow period of time for compliance, and to identify whether or not there are any further issues. They then follow this with a second, review, meeting. If there are further issues, then a new program for compliance is established. Finally, if the second program isn’t met, the employee is terminated.

‘Termination is hard,’ reflected James, in speaking of the process. In this particularly difficult case, however, it wasn’t necessary: The employee resigned after the second meeting.

Brenton went on to explain why this was a great outcome:

‘This person could have done damage to the client. It could have done emotional damage to the team. The person could have refused to resign, be terminated, and then try and drag us through the courts.’

Red Wagon’s participation in this process made the firm comfortable that even if the worst happened, they would have followed the correct process.

’Susan was very strong, clear, knew what she was doing, knew how to prepare us and to try and get an outcome,’ Brenton James recalled. ‘Even if the person hadn’t resigned, we were still comfortable that the process we had gone through would be defendable in any action. So, from an employer’s point of view, that’s as good an outcome as you could probably hope for.’

Since achieving this outcome, Jones Harley Toole now counts Red Wagon Workplace Solutions among their panels of expert specialists, which they call on an as-needed basis.

‘We haven’t had a further episode, which is good. But, from time to time, we would have queries that go beyond what I would call the expertise of my HR Office Manager. So we raise those queries or contact Susan for her input and guidance,’ said James. ‘It’s very helpful to have that point of contact, to make sure that we are on the right track. What I like about Susan is that she recognises the difference between a poor decision and a hard decision,’ he went on. ‘A hard decision needs to be made, but it needs to be made properly and through the proper process. That, generally, won’t cause damage, it just causes upset for a while. But a poor decision, poorly managed, can cause all sorts of problems.’

The flexibility of Red Wagon was an unexpected surprise

Brenton James speaks to the articulation and clarity of Susan Sadler’s communications throughout difficult industrial relations processes. She was also happy to let Jones Harley Toole lead the process.

Until, of course, she needed to take the lead.

‘I didn’t expect her to speak as articulately, as clearly, and as firmly at the meeting,’ mused James. ‘I think she’s generally been happy to let me take the lead role in the discussions but, in that meeting she decided that there was an opportunity to say something. I quite liked that, because it wasn’t prearranged. She read the mood of the room and spoke in a way that was very good.’

June Walsh agreed.

‘Oh, yes. She’s got to judge it at the time, and she’s got to think on her feet as to how she manages these people. I thought she might have more difficulty,’ Walsh laughed. ‘I wasn’t quite sure how the employee was going to react. I was pleasantly surprised that Susan was able to terminate the whole situation so quickly and effectively.’

The flexibility of Red Wagon Workplace Solutions enabled Jones Harley Toole to work in the way that was best for the firm. As a mid-tier firm, this flexibility is quite important: It allows them to negotiate remuneration, hours, and roles, one-on-one.

‘There are probably some big HR firms around that could do what Susan does, and I’m sure they could float a whole series of spectacular clients that they act for,’ James pointed out. ‘But I wouldn’t underestimate the value of the smaller firm, or the specialist person. She’s able to work within our needs, rather than us trying to fit within her structure.’

What can you learn from Jones Harley Toole’s experience?

In one line, it could be: ‘Don’t under-estimate the value of independent expertise’.

Jones Harley Toole didn’t just resolve one of the more difficult industrial relations matter that the firm has faced in Brenton James’s 29 years with the firm. They gained the reassurance, on an ongoing basis, that they are continuously reducing risk to the firm.

June Walsh pointed out that, since working with Red Wagon Workplace Solutions, she feels more comfortable. If June didn’t have someone to go to for expert advice, she’d feel nervous, because it’s easy to go down a slippery slope before you realise you’re on the edge.

‘We don’t need to bring somebody in [as an employee] who knows those things. We just need someone who does the day-to-day things, like I do,’ June explained. ’So, it makes perfect sense that you would have someone on a retainer where you can just ask questions before they turn into major problems.’

‘Don’t over-estimate how difficult HR issues [are] for the internal HR team, both in terms of complexity and independence,’ advises Brenton James. ‘Having that external contact, in whatever form you do, our experience has been that it adds to the value and success of the HR group, rather than distracting from it.’


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