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Surbana's actions in axing staff not acceptable: Swee Say

Manpower Minister calls on employers to handle performance management responsibly and sensitively

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Mr Lim: "Poor performance in one organisation doesn't mean the person cannot do well in other places."

Singapore

THE move by Surbana Jurong - a Temasek Holdings-owned infrastructure consultancy - to publicly label the 54 employees it recently axed as "poor performers" is unacceptable, said Manpower Minister Lim Swee Say on Tuesday.

He made the comment in parliament in response to queries from two members of the House, Jurong GRC MP Tan Wu Meng and non-constituency MP Daniel Goh.

Dr Tan had asked for an update on the ministry's investigations into the incident, while Associate Professor Goh of the opposition Workers' Party wanted to know more about the due and fair process to terminate a worker due to poor performance.

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It was reported in mid-January that Surbana Jurong had terminated 54 workers because of their unsatisfactory performance.

The company's group chief executive officer Wong Heang Fine later informed his employees via email that the company could not allow a small number of poor performers to affect the 99 per cent who are performing.

The company's two unions - the Singapore Industrial and Services Employees' Union and the Building Construction and Timber Industries Employees' Union - criticised the company and said that it had not followed due process.

The 54 people who were let go represented about 0.41 per cent of Surbana Jurong's 13,000-strong global workforce, and 0.79 per cent of its roughly 3,000 employees in Singapore.

Mr Lim, a former secretary-general of the National Trades Union Congress, had some harsh words for Surbana Jurong during a short exchange with some MPs.

"To the best of my recollection, this is the first time an employer has conducted such a major termination exercise and announced publicly it was due to the workers' poor performance. As Manpower Minister, it is something I do not find acceptable," he said.

"Whether GLC (government-linked company), MNC (multinational company), large local enterprises or, for that matter, public service … we do expect all of them to conduct HR (human resources) practices in a responsible and progressive manner," he said.

Mr Lim later made the point that a person's poor performance at work could also be affected by other contributing factors on the part of the employer, such as the work environment and HR practices.

He said that performance management should be the joint responsibility of both the employer and employee.

"For most organisations, if the working relationship reaches such a stage whereby the employer and employee can no longer continue … they will find a way to go their separate ways," said Mr Lim. "But you don't label publicly. So that's why I think the management realised that as well and publicly acknowledged."

His message for all employers in Singapore: When it comes to performance management, do it responsibly and at the same time sensitively.

"I hope we will not come across another case where a company does a major termination and labels employees as having poor performance publicly," he said. "Poor performance in one organisation doesn't mean the person cannot do well in other places."

After the controversy erupted, Surbana later admitted that it could have managed the situation better and pledged to work with the unions to help the affected workers obtain compensation and find new jobs.

Mr Lim noted that the Surbana Jurong management and unions have since reached an agreement on an ex-gratia payment for the terminated staff, and the ministry regards this settlement as "fair".

"This episode serves as a good reminder to employers that termination exercises should be conducted in a responsible and sensitive manner," he added.

Those who terminate employment contracts on the grounds of poor performance have to be able to substantiate these claims, said Mr Lim.

He pointed to the Tripartite Guidelines on Fair Employment Practices, which states that employers who wish to terminate the services of their staff due to poor performance are to apply "relevant and objective" performance criteria, and this should be made known to all employees.

Employers should also keep records of their employees' performance, and a decision to terminate the service of an employee should be based on documented poor performance. Where it involves a unionised employee, the union should also be consulted.

If an employer is unable to substantiate its claim that the employee's performance was poor, the termination is then considered unlawful. The employer may be ordered to reinstate the employee, or to provide compensation.

"There is no need for employees to access the employer's evidence. All they need to do is file an appeal on unfair termination to MOM. (We) will conduct an inquiry into the appeal and this includes requiring the employer to show cause and produce evidence to justify the termination," said Mr Lim.

The ministry receives more than 200 cases of such appeals every year, and the majority are resolved through mediation.

About 30 cases a year are referred for inquiry where the employers are required to show cause. On average, employers are ordered to compensate affected employees in about 10 cases each year.

READ MORE: Editorial: Companies must be responsible and sensitive when terminating staff

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