I recently discovered that the mother of one of my daughter’s preschool friends is also a human resources professional. When I pointed out what else we had in common, she responded with a smile and “Oh, the stories we could tell!”
And she’s right.
The tales told within the confidential walls of the HR office often make it feel more like a confessional, a middle school principal’s office, or a psych ward.
It’s not only HR managers that have to face this — managers at all levels have to respond to employees who come to them with the burdensome and the bizarre. The question is, how do you respond? Consider this — how would you respond if an employee came into your office and:
- wanted to make a complaint because the other employees were making fun of her lunch.
- said she was allergic to her office and needed new carpet, new paint, new furniture and an air cleaning system.
- complained because another employee was always eating all the good doughnuts.
- alleged that another employee had put poison in his coffee, and brought said coffee with him to be “analyzed”.
- asked if you have a company shirt he can wear because he thinks his cat peed on the one he picked up from the floor and put on this morning.
- told you she is scared for her life because she saw another employee selling drugs on the premises but refuses to tell you who that employee is.
- told you his colleague’s body is magnetic and keeps deactivating his magnetic access card when they sit near each other.
- complained that his office mate talks “too mushy” to his wife on the phone.
Or if you had an employee who:
- wore pajamas to work.
- mimicked other employees behind their backs when they are talking.
- had a problem maintaining good hygiene.
- lapsed in to the Shyriiwook language from Star Wars when speaking with other employees.
The list can go on an on, and will, for as long as people to continue to work with one another. As ridiculous as some complaints may seem, the important thing to remember is that at the time, they are significant to the employee making the complaint. While there’s not necessarily a need to immediately launch a full fledged investigation into every complaint, you do want to listen to the employee, and take their complaint seriously. You may ask them what they suggest would be a reasonable solution to the problem without, of course, immediately committing to their suggestion. Bear in mind also, that the laws are specific about what behavior defines harassment and discrimination, and behavior may not be illegal just because the offended employee claims it is. You will want to make them aware of any policies the company has regarding the incident, if there are any that apply.
What you do not want to do is outright dismiss their complaints. While you may ultimately determine that their complaint is invalid, you do want to be able to show that you listened and that you gave it consideration. In the litigious society in which we live, you want to at a minimum show that you took them seriously and looked into the implications of their complaints.
It’s also not unreasonable to listen to the employee and let them talk it out, and then discuss with them how the complaint may or may not be relevant to the workplace and working conditions; suggest, perhaps, that they think about it further, and then let you know the next morning if they feel it should be pursued. Often, an employee may stew over a colleague’s particular behavior, but their fury quickly fizzles when they hear themselves speaking it aloud. Sometimes just listening and then giving them an option to pursue — or an option out — is all the solution you need.
Submitted by: Paula Agee, SPHR; Senior Human Resources Consultant, IntegrityHR, Inc.
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