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Ask the HR Expert: Ethics & Social Responsibility

Posted by NEHRA  September 15, 2011 09:00 AM

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Q. I am a non-HR employee from a small company. An HR issue came up recently over a potential sexual harassment complaint. We allowed HR to deal with this the way they would normally would, but when the issue was brought up to us afterward, we did not feel that the discipline was warranted. This is a 2-PART question, but let me first explain the situation. A group of employees from the same department informed HR that their manager and a co-worker were having a sexual relationship that may have influenced the manager's recent wage adjustment for that employee. HR interviewed each of the three group members and one other employee from that department, then the co-worker, and finally the manager. The group of three included the co-worker's Ex, a good friend of the Ex, and a "chatty Cathy" who likes rumors. The additional employee is a good friend of the co-worker. The group of three have mostly the same story that the manager has been seen hanging out with the co-worker a lot, been quoted as saying sexual things about the co-worker as they walk away, but nothing physical, just a rumor of "favors". The additional employee says that at one point he saw the manager grab the co-worker, but did not say if he felt this was unwanted contact. When interviewing the co-worker, she mentions that the manager has made verbal advances at her, but not at work, and that she was not offended and not uncomfortable. She also states that there had been no physical contact at all. She then says that earlier in that day, she and the manager had a talk about him stopping these advances and he agreed to stop. I’m told that the manager has not denied making advances, but did say that he did not have any physical contact with his employee. HR felt that a short suspension was in order for the manager for inappropriate behavior that could have led to sexual harassment, and went ahead with the action. After this all took place, additional information was brought up that the group of three employees were simply starting rumors about the co-worker, since she was the Ex of one of the employees involved. And no one could confirm the additional employee's claim to physical contact. My boss and I are now worried that HR did not do enough investigation to take proper action, and that the action should be overturned and the suspension revoked. If we overturn an HR action, however, we are afraid that we are taking authority away from HR and causing the department to have no respect among the employees. A) What action should have been taken based on the information gathered? B) Should we even consider overturning an action where less than adequate information was used?

A. As a non-HR employee of your company, this issue seems to lie outside the realm of your responsibility. While you may be disappointed and even “angry” at the outcome of the sexual harassment investigation, the details and the ultimate decision are not within your power to pursue. You obviously have ethical concerns and believe that there may have been an inappropriate set of interviews pertaining to the alleged harassment. Clearly you believe the data is flawed and biased. Unless you are a member of the senior management team, it is my opinion that you should adjust to HR’s decision, however inadequate or unfair it may appear to you at this moment. If this feels too difficult, and you believe that the well-being of the entire company would be better served if a new investigation were begun, then I suggest you request that your boss take this action with the CEO. He or she may not agree, so be prepared for an end to this event.

You state that if “you overturn an HR action” you are concerned with the future reputation of the HR department. By what authority or “right”, or via what corporate handbook specific “rule”, do you believe you possess the power to overturn an HR action? The answer is simple: none. All you can do is bring your opinion to the attention of the CEO, your manager and/or the HR department. They cannot retaliate because you question a decision. You do have the right to voice your concern, and they have the obligation not to disclose any details of their confidential investigation.


Q. My position is in the HR Dept of a very large private utility company. I have been made aware that one of our in house attorneys is dating and now cohabitating with a Manager of Operations. They have been hiding this relationship. Although they work at different locations, I assume this is somehow a conflict of interest since they are hiding the relationship. I am not sure of the exact conflicts it could cause. I would like to be sure that this is somehow a valid conflict of interest before I share this info with my boss, especially because it involves one of our in house attorneys. We serve the community and must be protected from any liabilities. Could this be a problem?

A. These types of relationships always have the potential to be “a problem” that can embarrass an organization. For example, it is not inconceivable that an in house attorney might be asked to explore various legalities in a project coming out of operations, and therefore the Manager (his current partner) would be a party in this investigation. There are many other possibilities, including but not limited to conflicts of interest with customers in the community, access to files, responding to proposals, and mutual relationships with other executives who might be in a position to promote the current Manager of Operations. It is always best when these relationships are public knowledge, and when preventative steps to protect all parties can be discussed in advance, before “problems” are manifest. The relationship is best made public and not hidden within this private utility company.


Q. I was interviewing a candidate for a project management position to build a website. His resume had a lot of website experience but not necessarily what I was looking for. During the interview, the candidate told me that he had in fact built a very good and successfully launched social site, but he didn't include it on his resume because the site was for gay men to connect/date. He asked me if he should include it on his resume, and that it was recommended to him by friends to NOT include it because of the subject matter of the site (even though it was a successful project for him) and because it would “reveal” he was gay and could pose potential employment issues. Should a candidate hide what truly qualifies him for a job if his example is one that some may not agree with or approve of?

A. This candidate was fortunate enough to get the interview, even though it looked on paper that he didn’t have the exact experience you were looking for. But I suspect that was a matter of luck and that the odds of this happening again are not in his favor, given the number of applicants for every job.

The advice this applicant received is not sound. Here’s why. There are lots of people who develop social sites for groups of people that they have no affiliation with. For example, designing a site where Christian people can meet other Christian people in no way indicates that you are a Christian, just like developing a site for gay men to connect does not indicate you are gay. I would advise the candidate to include the site on his resume, especially if the site showcases his work in a manner that he is proud of.

I understand the need to perhaps not reveal everything about one’s self in this job market. However, in the end if you are fortunate enough to receive a job offer, wouldn’t you want it to be in a place where you will feel at ease? Focus on the results you can bring to the table and your personal beliefs will not come into play. On the flip side, make sure the company that you are working for aligns with your personal belief system.


Q. One of my very good front desk receptionists has told me that she is now dating one of our frequent guests at the hotel. This guest is a part of a loyal group whom we have a valuable relationship with. What should be done about this situation?

A. Check to see what your employee handbook says about dating guests. If this person is in violation of the policy, let her know that she has a choice to make. She can continue her relationship and find herself seeking new employment or she can end the relationship and retain her job.

Let’s for a moment suppose that your organization hasn’t had the foresight to address this policy in the employee handbook. I would then advise you to use your judgment. Is this person’s personal relationship with a guest impacting the way she treats other guests? Is she offering this guest preferential treatment? Is the relationship making others feel uncomfortable? If the answer is no, then I would remind the employee that you trust she will continue to act professionally at work. As long as she continues to do this, you will have nothing more to say on this matter. Remind her that should the situation change, you will immediately address the issues at hand.

If the relationship is impacting her ability to perform her job satisfactorily, then I’m afraid you have no choice but to address the performance issues you are observing.


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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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