Surbana shows us how not to HR

TL;DR – Don’t HR like Surbana Jurong.

Surbana Jurong group chief executive Wong Heang Fine (via ST)

So Surbana Jurong has come out to acknowledge that they screwed up  could have better managed the process of dismissing 54 workers. They said that in a joint statement with union bodies, Singapore Industrial and Services Employees’ Union (Siseu) and Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees’ Union (Batu).

In that statement, Surbana Jurong also said that they are working closely with the unions to provide an “equitable and mutually agreeable arrangement” for the affected workers and to help them find new employment. A bit late, no? It looks like the HR people in Surbana Jurong don’t seem to know how to do their jobs well.

If anything, they showed us what NOT to do.

1. Do not suddenly sack your staff

No matter how careful you are in your hiring process, there’s always a possibility that a small group of your staff somehow turn out to be toxic deadweight. No one said that you can’t fire employees who are like that. But in most of that kind of cases, those employees shouldn’t be surprised when they are sacked. By the time they receive the letter, they should have seen it coming. Because you should have a process of progressive discipline.

For each succeeding infraction, the employee should have been given an incrementally greater penalty, and warned that future infractions may result in increased discipline. A typical process can include a progression from verbal warnings and written warnings, to suspensions or performance improvement plans. Termination should happen only after you’ve gone through all of that.

But it seems that the 54 employees sacked by Surbana Jurong didn’t expect to be let go. So it seems that Surbana Jurong didn’t have a process of progressive discipline.

2. Do not forget to document, document, document

It’s not enough to have a process of progressive discipline process. You need to document each and every step of that process. Why? Because if a former employee challenges the decision to terminate, you will be expected to present a reason for the termination.

In the process of documenting the reasons, behaviours, incidents, and issues supporting your decision, be specific and avoid generalizations such as “bad fit,” “poor listener,” and “personality conflicts.” In addition, once you have painstakingly documented your decisions with supporting evidence, make sure these records are actually kept for the appropriate retention period.

Then, if you have to defend your decision for sacking an employee, you can explain, in detail, the reasons for the termination.

But it seems that Surbana Jurong didn’t do that. They apparently couldn’t give the unions good reasons why those 54 employees were specifically identified to be let go.

3. Do not sack people at sensitive timings

Chinese New Year is just around the corner. This is a terrible time to lose your job. Which heartless person decided to let those affected employees know about their termination so close to Chinese New year? Cannot wait for another month, meh?

Other bad timings that you should avoid sacking a staff include when the employee’s child is just about to be born, when the employee is on medical leave, or when the staff just suffered a work-related injury. Of course, you CAN let problem employees go even during sensitive timings. But only if it’s absolutely necessary.

4. Do not forget to involve the unions

Singapore prides itself on having a strong tripartite relationship. The unions want a fair deal for their member. They try not to bang table. They would rather negotiate calmly and coolly. But that doesn’t mean that employers can ride roughshod over them and suka suka sack union members.

For unionised companies, you are expected to involve the unions in the process, let them know about the details of the case, and rope them in to help you manage your problem staff. After all, the unions have never said that you can’t sack your staff. Just be fair. But… for whatever reasons, Surbana Jurong decided not to involve the unions. They only started talking to the unions after they announced that they were letting those 54 employees go.

Don’t HR like Surbana Jurong

One wonders why Surbana Jurong handled this situation so poorly. We wonder whether this will lead to more people being deemed as having performed poorly. Is somebody, don’t know who, but somebody gonna be hurt real bad? In any case, if there’s anything good out of this episode, it’s that this can be a case study of what NOT to do when terminating employees.

Updated 2016.02.07 Minister for Manpower, Mr Lim Swee Say, gave an update about the case during a Parliament session today. More here.

You can also read what we have to say here.



Author: Jake Koh

Recovering sushi addict, I'm a man of mystery and power, whose power is exceeded only by his mystery.


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