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Between a rock and a hard place

Thursday 18 November 2021 | Written by Te Tuhi Kelly | Published in Opinion

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Between a rock and a hard place
Te Tuhi Kelly. PHOTO: COOK ISLANDS NEWS/191011111

There are no bad employees, just bad employers, because if there were bad employees or potentially bad employees, they should have been filtered out with a proper pre-employment process and would not have been considered for employment.

One of my pet hates is the way Human Resources (HR) is managed in the Cook Islands or to put it in perspective, how it is mismanaged. To put it bluntly, it is seen as not adding value to an organisation’s day to day operations. Mediocrity and incompetence seem to be the axiom of those who take on HR roles and employees take the hit from poor decision making, poor HR advice, poor training, and poor performance.

Employers in the private and in the public sector in the Cook Islands are generally very hard-working people and they believe that they are fair and equitable to their employees. Despite this from my personal experience and background I can tell you that there is a need for all employers to have a mind shift in how they manage their employees. A few of the bigger employers here have hired human resources people and that is a very positive way to manage their organisations in a professional manner. These HR people are in the main dedicated to their roles and most of them are not trained HR professionals. When they take on the role, they learn on the job, they also learn poor professional HR habits not through their fault mainly, but also due to the insufficiency in their training, knowledge, and experience.

An additional challenge for those in HR is that many of the businesses in the Cook Islands are owner operated and the owners of these businesses are generally good employers. The owners usually have the final say in any employment relations issue affecting their businesses and tend to micromanage their staff, understandable if you look at it from their perspective. They also tend to have three sets of rules – one for management staff, one for employees on the shop floor and one for their family members. These rules can and do run counter to the Employment Relations Act 2012 (ERA 2012), because the Act requires that an employer must be fair and equitable within the employment relationship with the employee. If you have three sets of rules, how can this be fair and equitable: I propose that it cannot?

Public service employers on the other hand rely on the Public Service Commission and the Public Service Act 2009 for HR advice and unfortunately from my experience you might as well talk to your MP who last year was just a worker in the taro patch because that’s probably the same advice you are going to get. There are no bad employees, just bad employers, because if there were bad employees or potentially bad employees, they should have been filtered out with a proper pre-employment process and would not have been considered for employment.

Because of a lack of critical employee mass, too many people in the Cook Islands are employed without proper background checks, references being thoroughly checked, no proper criminal checks, no proper health checks. If there is something not quite right with the person’s previous employment, the Cook Islands thing is to forgive and give the person another chance. Does it come back to bite them, yes it does, do Cook Islanders learn from this, no they do not. So, they only have themselves to blame for the employment relations issue they have with their employee.

At the first sign of trouble, the first response is to blame someone else and not take responsibility for one’s poor judgement or actions, that’s the Cook Islands way. The economic fallout from a botched recruitment process is something that Cook Islands employers struggle to put into context. The answer is ‘oh well I’ll get someone else to do the job’. Well guys there usually are no one else so you are stuck, and this drives poor recruitment practices, so we go round and round in an ever-decreasing circle.

What happens for non-performers? Here is where most employers in the Cook Islands lose their way, they don’t hold proper formalised meetings with non-performing employees, usually it’s just a word in their employees’ ear to improve and that’s the sum total. When this is promptly ignored or the performance does not improve, the employer’s next move is to go over the top i.e., you’re sacked, terminated, or disestablished.

An employer must give reasons for termination (1) Before issuing a notice to terminate the employment of an employee for reasons relating to the capacity or conduct of the employee, the employer must— (a) tell the employee, in writing, of the reasons for the termination; and (b) give the employee a reasonable opportunity to respond and make submissions to the employer about why the employee’s employment should not be terminated. The reality is that most employers do not follow a proper robust and contestable disciplinary process. A reasonable opportunity for an employee to respond is barely five minutes. Everyman and owner think that they are HR or employment law specialists and disregard due and proper process because they can’t be bothered. Usually, their HR department is dysfunctional or the advice from HR is incorrect, deficient, or biased towards the employer.

Out of all this hand wringing is the fact that most employees just grin and bear it when they are subject to disciplinary action from the employer and give up because they can’t be bothered, don’t have the finances to fight a personal grievance or move on hopefully to the next job. The ERA 2012 is a starting base that protects both employer and employee in the workplace, however for employees without the ability to dispute, they are between a rock and a hard place.

By law in the ERA 2012, employees can belong to a union and that is perhaps the only economical saving grace for them unless they get an HR expert pro bono. There are pitfalls but at the same time there are benefits of belonging to a union that can represent one’s interests in the workplace, it takes courage to join.