Saturday, April 18, 2009

When the employer drops by


Very rarely does a private sector employer comment publicly about what its employee does in his or her personal time. It is even rarer for a private sector employer to express disagreement about its employee’s voluntary commitments.

DBS did both when it came out to express its view on the personal and voluntary work of its vice-president of credit cards, Josie Lau, who was appointed this week the new president of the Association of Women for Action and Research (Aware).

Employers generally restrain themselves not because it may come across as downright unprofessional but for other sound reasons. As indicated by DBS’ statement on Wednesday, in which it said the bank requires all employees to obtain approval before running for or taking on an external appointment, most employers have internal policies about such matters.

An internal policy usually allows an employee to do most things with his or her personal time so long as these do not create a real or an apparent conflict of interest by interfering with officially assigned duties.

A 1993 study, ‘The employer as social arbiter: Considerations in limiting involvement in off-the-job behaviour’, by the School of Labour and Industrial Relations at Michigan State University encouraged an employer “to act conservatively in invoking mandatory policies that affect employees’ personal lives unless there is a clear individual employee performance problem or the personal behaviour imposes harm on employees or customers”.

Such internal policies tend to encourage employees to consult their immediate supervisors when in doubt about their out-of-office activities. Legal advice can be sought from relevant counsel where necessary.

In the financial sector, there are governance requirements that require employees to disclose their activities or sources of income outside work on a regular basis.

Employees are often trusted to act in a manner not prejudicial to the interests and reputation of their employers. For example, some years ago, I was involved in a constitutional matter outside work. I knew that my then employer, a cooperative of the National Trades Union Congress, would not tolerate my participation in opposition party activities, as the NTUC unwaveringly backs the governing party.

But certain individuals alleged that I was helping an opposition party. Questions about such involvement naturally flowed from my bosses. It turned out I had in fact helped a politician from the ruling party.

To the credit of my former employer, I was never questioned about my personal activities again. I would like to think my actions had assured them that I had their interests and reputation at heart.

Similarly, cases such as Ms Lau’s are usually privately dealt with by well-oiled internal checks and before they become a public relations nightmare. Thus, when Sylvia Lim of Temasek Polytechnic or Brandon Siow of Singapore Airlines Cargo joined the Workers’ Party before the last elections, no equivalent performance concerns were raised by their employers.

What then are the options available to Ms Lau, now that her employer has said its piece? She can prepare for a baptism of fire. Her employer will scrutinise her more closely to ensure her Aware presidency does not affect her performance at work.

By ignoring DBS’ advice, she appears to have signalled that her presidency at Aware is more important than her work at DBS.

One of my personal advisers best summarised my position when I was subject to unusual scrutiny as such: “You should ask yourself if the values of your organisation complement your own values. If they don’t, the honourable thing for you to do is to resign.” Indeed, if Ms Lau is not prepared to rough it out or finds her personal values diverging from that of DBS, she should leave the bank.

The easy way, of course, is for her to conduct herself like nothing has happened. Arguably, some may submit this is a foolish thing to do.

Over time, however, this incident may pass. But it may be opportune for employers to review their guidelines for the personal activities of their employees. It may also be a good time to revisit one’s personal closets, just in case the employer drops by.

Dharmendra Yadav

Please consider the environment. Do you really need to print this?

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