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Ask the HR Expert: Diversity, Ethics & Issues

Posted by NEHRA  September 24, 2010 09:00 AM

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Q. My job requires that I travel to and from customer sites frequently. My employer has a policy that if I finish a job during the day but I do not have time to go to another job site or back to the corporate office and head to my home office instead - I get docked an hour of pay for that day. Is this unethical? More importantly, is this a legally allowed practice?

A. Sometimes ethics and legalities run very close to one another. On the surface, the issue presented is not necessarily unethical or illegal. Everything is dependent on how the job was originally structured. For example, were you hired as an hourly contract employee or a salaried individual? Were you told, in advance, what the company policy was for extra hours remaining in a day? Additionally, do you have an employment contract or letter that stipulates how many hours you will be paid per week? All of these factors are important. From a very broad perspective, it is our opinion that your employer should honor your integrity, provide you with the flexibility to work from home, and not “dock” pay because you have efficiently completed a specific task. If there is a written policy that speaks to losing hours of pay if and when one goes home, as opposed to returning to the corporate office (and you were told this fact ahead of time), then your employer is probably on firm ethical and legal grounds. It is, however, not necessarily a “smart” policy that will reinforce employee engagement, commitment and morale over the long term.


Q. I have a situation where the manager or our reward and recognition program & quality assurance process is in conflict with a staff member whom she claims misrepresented an issue that warranted a nomination for recognition. This is the first time this has happened and the manager is known for her credibility and integrity in managing the process. The staff member (on the other hand) has a history of using manipulative means and has been in similar conflicts with other co-workers in the past as well. She sought the audience of the head of the department, who issued a directive to the recognition program manager to recognize her in this particular instance. The manager feels this would undermine the process and set a negative precedence for how situations like these are handled. Moreover, the staff member in question has not done anything that warrants the recognition at this time. The manager is extremely de-motivated and is contemplating resigning from the responsibility. The head of the department is clearly in a compromising position. What advice can I give her on how to handle this appropriately?

Rather than resigning or fueling the negativity, I suggest that the manager (or head of the department) call a meeting of the committee, and all other parties, and talk openly about criteria for recognition at the company. She needs to discuss openly the bind that she and others are experiencing, and not make this conversation a win-lose scenario. In other words, she should approach the discussion as a “learning moment” to examine standards in light of what has happened in this particular situation. It may not be ideal—or ethical—to recognize an undeserving employee but there are times when programs are not “ideal.” This is a reality everyday in corporate America. When this occurs, world class managers grab the moment, initiate a collaborative discussion aimed at refining standards and process, and fervently attempting to avoid blame games. Corporate environments inevitably require compromise. Take the situation and turn it into a time for a high level review, reflection and redefinition of standards for the future.


Q. My boss has asked me to do something that I feel is unethical. How should I handle this situation?

A. It depends on the situation. Is your boss asking you to do something you believe is unethical? If this is the case, then begin by presuming good intent. Perhaps you are misunderstanding what you are being told or your boss doesn’t realize there is another way to meet her objectives. Ask for further clarification. You might say, “Help me to understand what you are trying to achieve here.” Or “What specific problem are you trying to fix?” The answers you receive will help you plan your course of action. You may be able to give your boss some possible solutions that are well within the range of acceptable options. If after doing so you find that your boss is indeed asking you to do something unethical, you’ll either need to report the situation to someone higher up in the organization or consider seeking employment elsewhere.


Q. Lately, a number of new hires have either quit work after the first week or failed to show up for their first day. This is creating both a staffing problem and an employee morale issue in our organization. I’ll admit our wages are on the low end of the scale. Do you think we will be able to fix this situation if we increased wages?

A. If money were the driving issue, most likely these people would never have accepted your position in the first place. Something else is going on here. Here are some questions I would suggest answering the following questions in order to diagnose the true issues rather than the symptoms:

On a scale of 1-10 with 10 being high, how accurately are my hiring managers describing the positions to candidates? A score of less than eight requires an intervention. No one likes surprises and it doesn’t take long, in this day and age of social media, for people to get the information they need in order to separate fact from fiction.

What am I doing to engage employees before they step in the door? A lot can happen between the time a candidate says “I do” and when they actually move in. The mating game of recruitment must continue throughout the recruitment process or you may find that your candidate has found someone else who is willing to provide the attention they seek. A welcoming letter sent to the family, a check in call a few days prior and the arrival of business cards are all great ways to let the candidate know you are excited to have them onboard.

Are you reaching for candidates that are out of your league? If so, perhaps you should be focusing your efforts on applicants that are a better fit for your organization. Case in point: One of my clients was recruiting at Ivy League schools for entry-level sales positions. Occasionally they would find someone who was willing to come on board. However, the outcome was usually the same. Within a year they had left for greener pastures.

Are your managers proficient interviewers? All too often people are thrown into the role of management and expected to hire on demand. It’s a bit more complicated than that. The good news is that interviewing skills can be taught. Enroll your people in a workshop or purchase a self-study guide to help your managers excel in employee selection. You’ll be glad you did.


Q. I direct a large department of service employees, and we have started to hire many new immigrants into the organization. The supervisors have been coming to me lately with complaints they are receiving from some of the long-term employees. They complain that the new-hires often speak with each other in their native languages, and they feel it is “rude” and that that they are “intentionally excluded” from their conversations. They also feel that they are sometimes “talking about them" and, at other times, it is “just plain awkward”.

I am at a loss about how to handle this, as these new employees, by and large, work hard and produce quality results. The supervisors are asking me to institute an English-only language policy, but I am not sure I want to do this – or if it is even legal.

Do you have any suggestions on what I can do to settle things down?

From my experience, this is an issue that can often cause a great deal of emotion and upset in an organization, and it needs to be carefully addressed.

Your goal in this situation should be to create a cohesive, productive department, where team members feel good working together. The only way for this to be possible is if all employees feel respected, valued, and included - and you address the issue of language from everyone’s perspective.

What the long-term employees may not understand is why the new-hires are speaking in their native languages. One of the main reasons for this is that it can be difficult and exhausting to speak in a new language all day long. To be able to revert back to their native language during the day can help these employees reenergize throughout the day – especially if it is during breaks and social conversation.

The extra effort required to speak a new language all day – and to also learn how to live and work successfully in a new country (often far away from close friends and family) - can be enormous, if not overwhelming. The term “culture shock” is an apt description for this phenomenon. For those of us who have never chosen to - or had to - move to a new country, it can be extremely illuminating to understand these difficulties.

It is also important for those who are upset to know that employees speaking in another language are rarely doing so in an effort to purposely exclude or "talk about" those around them. Of course, in situations where this is the intent, instances of such behavior should fall under the company’s code of conduct and discipline policy, and offending employees should be counseled about appropriate workplace conduct.

As for the new hires, they often don’t know that their coworkers are feeling excluded or why they are feeling upset and uncomfortable in these situations. Helping them to “see the other side” of the issue should result in their being more cognizant and sensitive as to when and where they decide to speak in their native language. In order for the team to avoid misunderstanding and incorrect assumptions about others’ motivations and intentions, it is important that employees on all sides of this issue be able to recognize and empathize with the differing needs, desires, and realities of those around them.

As for the legality issue, it is wise for you to think very carefully before issuing an English-only policy in the workplace. Not only could you risk receiving complaints of unfairness and discrimination, but you could also de-motivate your new-hires, while potentially acerbating the situation.

If you do decide that you want to pursue this as a possibility, speak to your legal department and keep in mind EEOC guidelines. According to the EEOC, examples of justifiable English-only rules include:

  • Policies that are needed to promote the safety or efficiency of an operation

  • Communication with customers, coworkers, supervisors who only speak English

  • Emergencies in which workers must speak a common language for safety reasons

In the end, most workplaces dealing with these issues decide to forgo adopting a formal English-only policy, especially when they feel they cannot meet the legal standard of business necessity. Even when they can meet the standard, most organizations opt out, recognizing that adopting a formal policy can create even more hard feelings and further polarize the team.

When coaching your subordinates on this matter, it is important that you help them understand and be able to represent all sides of this issue so that they can effectively address the situation within their teams. If this feels too difficult to you or daunting in any way, then consider asking your HR representative and/or a diversity and inclusion specialist to help you and your organization to successfully manage these crucial conversations. The extra care and time you put into responding to these complaints will be well worth the effort.


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About NEHRA - The Voice of HR Featuring articles and resources for Human Resources / HR professional and hiring managers from the Northeast Human Resources Association (NEHRA).

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