March 1, 2011

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Sticky Wickets

Experts Confront Delicate Human Resource Issues

Heidi Kulicke

March 1, 2011

Managers are often faced with touchy situations: Workplace romances. Deadbeat employees. Offensive conversations. Bad personal hygiene. The list goes on and on. But from a human resources perspective, what exactly can be done to alleviate these “sticky issues” we all encounter? Clearly stated policies and procedures, both written and verbal, are often the answer, but in some cases a detailed employee handbook is not enough. Policies must be discussed routinely at meetings and training sessions. It’s also important that employees can look to the professional behavior of management as an example. And when there is a violation, disciplinary action must be swift and thorough. But for those truly sticky situations, human resources professionals have specific advice about the best protocol for tackling the problem in a fair, legal and sensitive manner. Dating and Harassment Many people spend more time with coworkers than family, when factoring in commutes and sleep. With a common bond already in place, it’s only natural for dating relationships to blossom for some singles. But it’s not all roses when two people who meet at work become a couple. General distraction and a drop in productivity are common. And if the relationship turns sour, hostility, avoidance and gossip could burden the workplace. Because it’s almost impossible to monitor, clearly stated policies are essential to addressing this issue, especially concerning a subordinate-supervisor scenario. “A relationship that occurs between any supervisor and employee is setting up a potential sexual harassment case due to favoritism or perceived employment jeopardy,” says Doug Moody of Solution Services, a professional employer organization based in American Fork. As a result, many companies prohibit such relationships; in fact, often one or both employees could be required to resign in order to avoid future problems, says Moody. Even when no inappropriate conduct is involved, fraternization with a subordinate may appear unfair to others. Practically any work scenario between employees could evolve into unwelcome territory, depending on the circumstances. Employee advances toward another employee, however minor, may cause discomfort that leads to accusations of sexual harassment. There is no one-case-fits-all when determining whether something is or is not harassment, says Sharron Ngatikaura, human resources consultant with Employer Solutions Group. “It’s completely subjective, depending on the victim and the use of a ‘reasonable person’ standard from the victim’s perspective.” Ngatikaura recommends managers and employees alike be trained at least annually about sexual harassment, both recognizing what it is and how to report incidents of sexual harassment. Offensive Conversations Sharing opinions and experiences builds camaraderie in the workplace, but getting too opinionated could become a liability, as protected classes are defined by federal law. This includes hot-button topics such as politics, religion, disability, age, race, national origin, gender, veteran status and sexual orientation. Therefore, these subjects should be avoided in the workplace, says Ngatikaura. Common sense and good judgment should be exercised at all times. A simple opinion about current events may seem completely harmless, but could be viewed by another as verbal harassment. “When a potential conflict with offensive discussions in the workplace occurs, re-initiate training to emphasize respect and anti-harassment policies. Identify reporting protocols for employees who feel threatened or harassed in the workplace,” says Moody. “Employees should always be encouraged to come forward it they ever feel harassed or discriminated against,” adds Ngatikaura. A well-established open-door policy or complaint procedure may encourage employees to address concerns about offensive speech before the situation gets out of hand. Supervisors may find it beneficial to spend a little more time walking around whenever they receive a rise in complaints, but there is still a line between supportive management and unnecessary policing of casual conversations. There are many non-work related topics that are discussed between employees where they may disagree, and that’s normal. “If one of these conversations becomes too heated, however, employees should be reminded to be respectful of other points of view,” says Tiffany Kahn, human resources director for Resource Management., a human resource outsource company. Poor Hygiene Some aspects of human resources are more difficult than others. Addressing poor hygiene may be one of the most difficult matters a manager has do deal with because of the personal and sensitive nature of the topic. Chances are we’ve all interacted with someone in a work or public setting who isn’t aware of the problem or that others are suffering as a result. If hygiene becomes offensive to the point of verbal complaints from employees or customers, it should be addressed, as with any other performance problem, with respect and compassion, says Brad Fagergren of Innovative Staffing. Hygiene covers a multitude of odor and grooming issues that should be clearly outlined in an employee handbook to help employees know what is expected. Grooming and dress standards are essential for every business in one way or another, as these standards help maintain the image of the business. After speaking with the individual, determine if the problem is cultural, religious or medically related. If so, reasonable accommodations should be made. If not, Moody suggests providing financial assistance to help the individual improve their hygiene. “It helps to ease the pressure of an uncomfortable situation,” he adds. Deadbeat Employees While most employees are a company’s greatest asset, a few can become serious liabilities. These “slackers” have mastered the art of manipulating the system in their favor. They don’t show up for work, call in sick repeatedly or milk the time off policy. They’re always walking on the edge, but never falling off. They do just enough to stay employed but don’t grow professionally or contribute like other employees. “Companies hire employees for one reason: to help them be profitable. Any time an unproductive employee is discovered, that means the company is being hurt,” says Ngatikaura. It is the supervisor’s role to clearly state expectations in regards to performance and to confront underperforming employees. Established job descriptions, performance standards, and clearly stated policies and procedures should already be in place before a problem arises. “These tools are key to creating a productive work environment, and the absence of these tools can leave an employer in a powerless or costly position if a deadbeat employee wants to take advantage of their employment relationship,” says Moody. Dishonesty Lying on a resume. Being deceitful with management. Stealing proprietary data/intellectual property. Embezzling company funds. While these scenarios sound like the perfect script for a white-collar crime flick, all of these behaviors are, unfortunately, a workplace reality. In fact, many employees have no reservation about stealing electronic assets when they leave a job. Even scarier, data theft now outpaces the stealing of tangible assets in the workplace, according to London-based risk consultancy Kroll. The firm released its “Global Fraud Report,” an annual report on international fraud trends this past October. An organization is only as honest as the people who work there. Standards of honesty and integrity originate at the top of the pyramid and trickle down to every employee. The obvious answer to avoid these problems is to simply hire the most honest job candidates available. By learning how to spot those suffering from “selective integrity,” managers can screen those applicants who raise red flags. If you suspect any foul play from a current employee, the sooner the issue is addressed the better. “Failure to discipline dishonest acts at the minor levels indicates acceptance, so dishonesty must be confronted while small or it will be rationalized to greater levels,” says Moody. Be sure to investigate and gather as much information as possible before acting. Being too hasty could backfire, says Erica Baxter of Employer Solutions Group. Gather all evidence together, arrange a meeting with the employee, confront him or her with the information you have, and see how he or she responds. “If the employee admits to the dishonesty and it is significant, then terminating employment may be the right course of action to take,” she says. Internet Issues As technology advances, a plethora of new issues surface in the workplace. Establish a clear protocol regarding personal computer use on company equipment through an internet use policy in your employee handbook, making sure employees understand they have no right to privacy, says Kahn. In recent years, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter have prompted companies to create written policies forbidding the use of social networking sites during work hours to avoid productivity issues. Depending on the nature of your business, blocking social networking sites may or may not be beneficial, says Ngatikaura. When properly utilized, these sites can be a significant resource to build business prospects and create customer awareness and support. However, they have also proven to be a liability when employees make unauthorized statements for the world to view, says Moody. Lawsuits are popping up from both sides of the issue. “Employers have sued employees for slander and violations of non-compete agreements from information they posted online, and employees have sued their employers for spying, free-speech and privacy issues,” says Ngatikaura. She recommends providing regular reminders either in company-wide trainings or as a short blurb in company memos to remind managers and employees alike of the risks involved with social networking. “Employers should always make it clear that misuse or improper release of privileged information online is strictly forbidden and can lead to termination, with or without warning.”
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