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Ask the HR Expert: Diversity, Ethics & Issues

Posted by NEHRA  February 25, 2011 09:00 AM

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Q. A female employee has spoken to me twice "off the record" and advised me that she thinks our Executive Officer is romantically interested in her. She said that he asked her on a date, but when I questioned further she indicated instead that he included her in a group invitation. Furthermore, it appears that whenever she doesn't like a decision being made or doesn't get her way on an issue, threatens to go to our board of directors and "out" our Executive Officer for asking her on a date. My question is, how do I properly handle this – so that it doesn’t become a legal matter? Do I report this and have a meeting with her and the Executive Officer, or do I just let the Executive Officer know - so that he is aware of the situation?

A. This is an intriguing dilemma but unfortunately not an unusual occurrence. It raises many potential legal and ethical challenges for all parties concerned. As an HR professional you have an obligation to take more action than you have, especially if you have not consulted any other colleagues on the matter. At this moment we have no evidence of unethical behavior or any illegal or inappropriate behavior, other than the employee’s repetitive “threats” pertaining to “outing” the Executive. It is my opinion that you must notify the Executive in question about the consistent threats. This will provide you with additional data. Keep in mind that you must strongly warn the Executive NOT to discuss this matter with the employee or approach her with any response that could be viewed as retaliatory in nature. I also would sit with the employee, point out that her threats have continued over time, and let her know that she is pushing you towards having to engage in a formal investigation. Ask her what she would like. If she says that this is not necessary, then let her know you consider the matter closed, but that the next allegation from any party will initiative a formal and confidential sexual harassment investigation. Document all of your conversations.


Q. Isn’t it unethical for a general manager to work a server’s shift at a restaurant and receive tips along with his manager's salary? If so, how can I best bring this up without retaliation or a threat to my job?

A.I can understand why many people would consider the manager unethical in collecting tips along with his salary. Managers have a substantially higher salary than wait staff, and are guaranteed a weekly income. This is not the case for most servers. In addition, it is generally accepted (“unwritten rule” of the trade!) and common practice for managers to deposit any tips they receive into a pool, to be shared by servers. In some States it is actually a violation of labor laws for salaried managers to receive tips (see State of Michigan labor laws). This manager is treading on thin ice especially if he is preventing a regular server from staffing his or her shift, just to obtain tips. Clearly that would be highly unethical. On the other hand, some restaurants have policies about tips and “shared pools.” If a shared pool for servers exists, then the manager should deposit his tips into the shared pool, and not be a recipient. This would be a nice “team enhancing” gesture, and an acknowledgement of his higher wages. I think you can bring it up directly and let the manager know your concerns, but it is probably safer to do this with other members of the team. Don’t attack him. Just become “curious” and ask for clarification about tips, management’s participation in any pool, and the current policy. He will likely feel threatened, so be prepared to remain calm and assertive, not angry or aggressive.


Q. What are the most appropriate and effective solutions for the unethical behavior of an employee who is a) continually late in arriving to the office each day and b) is highly dependent on others to complete his work assignments?

A. First, let’s be clear about one thing. Arriving late to work every day and expecting others to complete your work assignment is unprofessional, not unethical - unless of course this person is completing their time card as if they have arrived on time every day of the week.

There are a number of ways this situation can be handled, if you are the person who is picking up the slack. First, I would let this person know the impact their behavior is having on you. For example, suppose this extra work you have now been “assigned” is causing you to leave your daughter waiting at school, because you are unable to pick her up on time. There is a slight chance you will be able to get this person to change their behavior, if you share this story. At a minimum, you will put them on notice that you are no longer willing to cover for them. Let them know if this pattern continues, you will have no choice but to take this matter higher up the organization.

If you are merely an observer of this situation, then all you can do is encourage the people who are picking up the slack to either take this to their supervisor or confront this person directly.


Q. There is an obvious relationship between a team member and a member of management. HR does not seem to want to intervene. What are my options, in terms of properly getting this inappropriate ethical issue reported/resolved?

A. You say there is an “obvious relationship.” What is your evidence? Have you observed two people having dinner together after work, who could very well be discussing business, or have you personally seen them smooching in the corner booth at the local pub? Before jumping to conclusions and bringing what could be an innocent situation to the forefront, I would advise you to be sure what you think you saw, is indeed an “inappropriate” relationship.

If you do believe this is the case and HR is unwilling to intervene, remind them how fickle love is and that this matter could easily turn into one of sexual harassment. You didn’t say if this team member is receiving any special favors as a result of this relationship. For example, has he been assigned the plum sales accounts because of this relationship, while you are forced to work on the accounts that are no longer bearing fruit? If so, there is a possibility this relationship may be creating a hostile work environment. File a formal complaint, which will force HR to deal with this matter, whether they want to or not.


Q. I have some limitations when it comes to performing my duties at work, due to my mental illness. I appear a little incompetent, as I am a slow starter mainly due to the effects of the medication I am taking. Is there anything specific that I can do to make my employers more sympathetic to my condition?

A. Yes, absolutely, there are several things you can do:

  1. First of all, you should know your rights. Both state and federal laws protect persons with disabilities against discrimination. As a person with a mental illness, you are most likely protected. If you are not sure, then contact your state’s human rights/anti-discrimination agency:

  2. If you have not already done so, you should consider having a conversation with your employer about your situation. It is generally recommended that you start with your immediate boss and/or HR. By law, once the employer is aware of an employee’s disability, they are obligated to enter into a conversation with you regarding any specific needs you have or support that might assist you to perform your job satisfactorily.

    For example, someone with clinical depression might request flex time from her employer to receive treatment. Or a person who has bipolar disorder may need a quiet space in order to focus better on his work.

    If an employee with a disability can be assisted to perform his or her duties with a “reasonable accommodation,” the employer is obligated to provide it. The accommodation can be related to the condition or to the results of treatment for the condition (such as the effects of medication, as you are experiencing). Even if the employee’s initial request for accommodation is “unreasonable,” the employer must discuss the situation thoroughly with the employee, and to consider options that might be mutually agreeable.

  3. Even if you have already had this initial conversation, if you feel that your manager/employer does not fully sympathize (or appreciate) your situation, then it might be time to sit down with him/her again. Managers, especially good ones, often welcome these discussions – especially if s/he has concerns about or noticed a change in performance levels.

    Here are a few resources for you to consider using to help you prepare for these conversations:

    • The Job Accommodation Network - is an excellent and free resource for both employees and employers. You can find them at or by calling them at (800)526-7234 (Voice) or (877)781-9403 (TTY). Also, they have live operators available to speak to you (and/or your employer), to answer your questions about workplace accommodations, the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA), or related legislation.

    • The Disability Law Center (DLC) has an excellent resource regarding reasonable accommodation requests. Although this is a Massachusetts agency, their information is consistent with federal law.

  4. If it seems appropriate to you, you might suggest that your employer provide training on the topic. Although they are not obligated to do so, they may decide that they want to provide a disability discrimination prevention or disability awareness program for HR, supervisors, and/or employees. Businesses are becoming increasingly aware of the fact that awareness training makes good business sense and contributes positively to employee morale and the bottom line.

    The program they provide could be anything from regular classroom training for managers and staff, to a panel presentation (with 3 or 4 speakers with different disabilities), to a brown bag luncheon discussion. If you do decide to call the Job Accommodation Network or the Disability Law Center, they should be able to help you and your employer locate speakers and resources.

  5. Lastly, you might want to consider distributing a fact sheet to your manager and/or your closest colleagues. It is important to note, however, that your health condition and information is confidential. This means that you get to determine who receives it – and who doesn’t. So, if you do decide to disseminate anything, you may want to (gently) remind the recipients of the information of your desire for confidentiality.


Q. What are some practical suggestions for how a company can achieve its goal of encouraging workforce diversity/inclusion at all levels within an organization?

A. While there are a myriad of things that companies can do to create a thriving, diverse and inclusive culture, the secret to success is for the organization to choose activities and programs that are “developmentally appropriate” for its culture. As I don’t know how far your organization has gone already in its diversity and inclusion (D&I) efforts, my intention is to give you a guide with a wide-range of suggestions for you to choose from. The key will be for you to determine which of the items are the best fits and most appropriate for your company at this time.

Before moving forward, the most important things to consider are:

  • How long the company has been working on a diversity and inclusion (D & I) initiative
  • How much institutional buy-in there is (especially from the top)
  • How much of a foundation has already been built
  • How much alignment there is to the spirit and principals of the work.

When it is done correctly, diversity and inclusion work results in deep, if not profound, change. As such, it needs to be tackled deliberately and systemically. While it is important for a company to go ahead and engage in a D& I initiative, it is critical that it be planned carefully and approached strategically.

Here is a Diversity & Inclusion Guide to Best Practices - which I have designed to be a road map and guide for a D & I “journey”. The items on the checklist are separated into 9 major categories (Recruitment, Climate and Retention, and Education, for example) and should give you a full spectrum of practical suggestions for increasing diversity and inclusion at all levels of your organization.

Over the years, I have seen too many companies waste their precious resources, getting stuck and spinning their wheels, hosting initiatives that don’t match nor address their needs. The most common problems include when the D& I initiative:

  • Lacks support from the top
  • Lacks focus, coordination, and strategic planning
  • Is too superficial for the organization, never going below the surface
  • Doesn’t get to the heart of the matter – or to the root of the problem it is trying to address
  • Is under-funded, resulting in half-measures being taken
  • Covers the same territory over and over again, never broadening its scope nor moving beyond its original focus
  • Is too aggressive and pushes people and parts of the organization into anger, defensiveness, and intransigence
  • Is not inclusive enough and leaves out large portions of the employee population, who don’t feel the program values them and their contributions

Some other resources on the web which you may want to check out include:

  • The Diversity Initiative ( has some terrific, free resources, including articles, guides and downloadable brochures. While they are aimed at nonprofits, the principles are generally universal.
  • Diversity Inc. magazine ( has some excellent articles, resources, and links, many of which are free.
  • Diversity Central ( also has many links, articles and resources, some of which are free.


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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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