HR Management & Compliance

Everything I Need to Know About HR I Learned from NCIS

NCIS is a popular TV show that has run for 16 seasons. One of the show’s running conceits is the set of rules promulgated by lead investigator Leroy Jethro Gibbs (played by Mark Harmon). The rules are referenced scattershot throughout the episodes. Sometimes they’re self-fulfilling prophecies and at other times contradictory for the plot as well as common sense. While the show itself is an HR nightmare with unpaid overtime, sexual harassment, and a general disdain for any rules but your own, some of Jethro’s tenets embody excellent HR principles.

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Rule #3: ‘Don’t believe what you are told, double-check’

In the HR world, following this rule is a way to resolve what is known as the “cat’s paw” issue. The cat’s paw legal theory is that a manager is told something by others and then acts on the information in good faith. While the manager didn’t have discriminatory intent, the person providing the information did. Essentially, the argument is that the manager has committed discrimination by proxy. Cat’s paw arguments can be particularly difficult to defend in implicit bias cases in which the discrimination isn’t overt or clearly shown. Consequently, managers must make their assessments with the bias of others in mind.

As a manager, to mitigate the cat’s paw issue, be sure you check all sources, interview applicable witnesses, and review documents and preexisting HR files. A careful review will help to ensure that your decisions are based on facts, not simply others’ perceptions.

Rule #5: ‘You don’t waste good’

Employees need to be assessed based on their skills and talents. Some workers are suited for certain roles or have the right skill set for a new position. It isn’t uncommon in many fast-growing companies for people to accept a promotion outside of their actual skill set and then fail in the new, higher-level job.

This issue of “not wasting good” also may come into play during a reduction in force (RIF). If you’re losing staff for budgetary or other reasons, you don’t want to “waste good.” Because of that, many employers try to avoid basing their RIFs exclusively on seniority. If you’re doing a RIF, be consistent. Create a framework that looks at a variety of issues such as skills, demonstrated abilities, previous disciplinary action, and other pertinent business factors. Seniority can be a component.

If you’re relying on a premise like “don’t waste good,” be sure you can quantify what “good” is. On this point, you should update all job descriptions so employees know what success looks like in any given position.

Rule #12: ‘Never date a coworker’

This rule is particularly true when you’re the boss. Dating and sexual relationships with coworkers create significant potential employer liability for sexual harassment and other forms of claims, including sexual favoritism.

To get ahead of those concerns, many employers have policies requiring employees to provide notification about their romantic relationships. Failing to provide the notice may subject an employee to discipline or termination. Unfortunately, for many employees, work is their dating pool.

Employees who are dating need to be very careful about their workplace conduct. They should behave in a professional manner and abide by the existing rules, particularly if notification about the relationship is required. They should be extremely thoughtful and careful before engaging in any kind of supervisor/subordinate romantic relationship, which is more likely to get people into trouble.

Rule #15: ‘Always work as a team’

Most employers encourage and try to focus on teamwork but don’t always know how to create a team-like environment. Teams need to understand how both group and individual accomplishments will be measured. That means you need assessments and metrics for both levels. Some employees are wary of teams because they feel they do all of the work and receive none of the accolades. Others are concerned because they believe their ideas are being squashed or that groupthink stifles innovation.

HR needs to understand both the strengths and the weaknesses of the team concept, look at people’s skill sets, and train appropriately. Some people don’t work well on teams, while others do. Teams also can come into play when an employee receives an accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), for example, as a support system that balances the work.

Rule #28: ‘If you need help, ask’

It’s incumbent on you as the employer to create an environment in which questions are answered and help is provided when necessary. Everything from formalized training programs to open-door policies can signal that you are supportive of employees and ready to answer their questions. Formal mentoring programs led by employees with more seniority can assist others in developing the skill sets necessary to be successful on the job.

One caveat: If you’re receiving a lot of questions about the same things, it probably means you don’t have appropriate training in that area. You may need to review and revise your policies to make the issues clearer for your employees.

Some employees don’t ask for help because they view it as a sign of weakness. While you may never be able to change certain beliefs, you can foster a culture of cooperative assistance that still rewards individual achievement.

Rule #45: ‘Clean up your messes’

How many of us have stepped into the office coffee room only to wonder if the people who were just there were raised in a barn? Mugs, spills, scattered sugar packets, and all the rest can lead to frustration. Most of us have seen more than one note on the office microwave bearing the message: “Please cover your food, I am sick of cleaning up your mess.”

Failure to clean up “your messes” also can affect a number of other areas. From a purely practical and physical perspective, cleanup failures can lead to safety considerations and even Occupational Safety and Health Act violations. Leaving tools or other items scattered can block an exit, cause a fall, or create 1,001 other safety hurdles. More broadly speaking, failing to know where your documentation is or keep a clean calendar can cause a mess and lead to missed deadlines as well as significant trouble and losses for your company.

Our best HR advice: If you make a mistake, admit it. Own it, and figure out what you can do to mitigate the damage. Trying to hide a mistake is almost never going to get you where you need to go. The true mess in most instances isn’t the mistake—it’s the lie you tell to cover it up that creates the problem.

Rule #51: ‘Sometimes you are wrong’

Sometimes a policy doesn’t work. Sometimes it isn’t explained properly, or it’s not something you can implement on a regular and consistent basis. Having no policy is better than having a policy that no one understands or you never enforce. If employees consistently have questions or misunderstandings, fix the policy.

If you went into an investigation believing an employee was just “stirring the pot” and it turns out there are HR issues that need to be addressed, focus on them. Move forward in a productive manner to address the problems. None of us is right 100 percent of the time. It’s not the making of the mistake or being wrong—it’s the recovery that defines our worth.

Rule #36: ‘If it feels like you are being played, you probably are’

If it feels like an employee is telling on a coworker because last week it was the other way around, look carefully at the complaint, the concern, and the cause. Maybe the employee is trying to get out of work or something similar. Trust your instincts, but always verify. As Rule #3 (above) also suggested: Always double-check.

Rule #11: ‘When the job is done, walk away’

Employees’ failure to walk away has become an increasing problem for many HR managers. Workers driven by social media and motivated to rehash problems constantly don’t always “walk away” after you’ve addressed an issue, particularly if it wasn’t resolved to their satisfaction.

Tiered processes can allow employees to accelerate their concerns to the next level of management. At some point, however, a final decision is made. Not all employees will be happy with the decision, and HR may need to think of ways to help them move forward.

When bringing a new complaint to HR, it isn’t uncommon for an employee to want to rehash all the issues that have already been addressed. It’s incumbent on HR to say, “I remember those concerns. They are documented in the file. Rather than revisit the past situation, what is concerning you today?” In most instances, you can’t prohibit employees from rehashing their discipline on social media because of Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA). Nevertheless, you can continue to address new issues as they arise while encouraging forward movement.

Rule #13: ‘Never ever involve lawyers’

In addition to the continuing sexual harassment issues, NCIS contains some really bad advice for HR, including this gem: “Never ever involve lawyers.” The irony is that the show frequently features lawyers bailing out people whose stories they believe or who may have been wrongly prosecuted.

So, the show breaks its own rule all the time, and so should you. If something is complex and legally challenging, you need to involve counsel. Your attorney may have a broader perspective and be able to help you sort through the various questions, concerns, and legal ramifications for the choices you make.

Bottom Line

What are our final HR takeaways from NCIS?

  1. Develop clear, consistent, and enforceable policies that your employees can understand.
  2. Train employees on the policies—not just in esoteric ways but with real-life examples and circumstances. That way, everyone will know how to apply the rules.
  3. Pay attention when complaints are made. Careful evaluation will be needed especially if multiple concerns have been raised. Additionally, other personal issues may affect how the complaint is being presented. Verify the concerns, interview witnesses, and put in the work to make sure your decision is correct based on all of the available facts.
  4. Assess your employees’ strengths and weaknesses. Don’t simply reward them with a promotion if their skill set doesn’t suit the job.
  5. Work cooperatively as a group, whether that involves asking for help, cleaning up problems, or assessing new resolutions and adapting to changing circumstances.
  6. Don’t sexually harass your coworkers or employees.

Jo Ellen Whitney is an Attorney at Davis Brown Law Firm and an editor of the Iowa Employment Law Letter. She may be contacted at