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When the going gets weird …

… bankers ask HR to sort things out

When the going gets weird …

Pity the poor HR person: Stuck in the dual roles of Enforcer of the Bank’s Policies and Advocate for Aggrieved Employees. Add to this, Investigator of Employee Complaints, and you can see what drives HR folks into therapy.

Some of the issues that cross the HR desk border on the bizarre.

There may not be a policy that applies, or a legal framework to follow.

Handling these situations calls for ingenuity, objectivity, and delicacy. A thick skin comes in useful too. Somebody’s going to be unhappy with the resolution.

Handling the super-sensitive employee

There’s a legal definition for workplace harassment. It is verbal, physical, or graphic behavior that is unwelcome and offensive to the reasonable person. The behavior must be “severe and pervasive,” rather than trivial.

See the problem here? We all believe we are reasonable people, but what is unwelcome and offensive to one person may not be so to another. Ditto for “severe and pervasive.”

An example: An overweight employee complains that two other employees are making fun of her size, and talking about her behind her back. She reports that she walked in on them giggling in the break room. They immediately stopped. The two, who are friends, go to lunch together, and occasionally other employees join them, but the complaining employee is never invited to go.

If this is the sum of evidence presented, an overworked HR person might be tempted to ignore the complaint, especially if the employee has a history of being “high maintenance.” Anyway, interviewing the giggly co-workers would expose the identity of the complainer and may isolate her further. However, brushing off an employee complaint is never a wise course.

What is called for here is, first, a thorough and sensitive talk with the complainer, making sure to use active listening skills. If the employee feels completely heard, she may be satisfied.

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In addition, and even if there is no evidence of harassment as defined by the bank’s policy, this presents an opportunity to do some refresher training on appropriate behavior for the whole workforce. Without singling out obesity, encourage employees to be empathetic to others’ challenges, and to be aware of how they might inadvertently offend a co-worker.

In a previous blog posting, I covered means of handling the situation where super-sensitivity morphs into paranoia.

Personal hygiene issues

This comes up more often than you would think. The malodorous employee seems unaware of the problem. His co-workers think it’s HR’s job to deal with it.

This is not an easy conversation for either party.

Start by asking general questions about the employee’s wellbeing. Are there any issues the employee wants to address?

It’s amazing what might come to light:

• “Joe” is sleeping in his car and has no access to shower or laundry facilities, because his wife has thrown him out.

• “Jane” has a drinking problem and is trying (unsuccessfully) to cover the smell of alcohol by spraying herself with cheap perfume.

It’s not HR’s job to solve all life’s problems, but there may be something that can be done within the bank’s policies and benefit plans to alleviate the immediate problem, help resolve the underlying cause, and enable the employee to remain in employment.

And then there’s “Jim,” who sees nothing wrong with his “manly” scent, and refuses to waste his time or money on personal grooming.

This is a short conversation.

Jim needs to understand that co-workers and customers do not share his appreciation for the odor of unwashed gym shorts. He needs to be told that the bank’s appearance and grooming standards prevail, and that his job is on the line.

Lying for leave

Perhaps one of HR’s thorniest problems is administering the bank’s leave policies.

It’s tricky, weaving a path between the notice and certification requirements of the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and the privacy attached to personal health information. Getting complete, timely, and accurate medical information is key to managing attendance, but there are many obstacles to obtaining it.

One such obstacle is an employee who either refuses to disclose the real reason for needing time off, or who lies about it.

For example, the employee who claimed she was suffering from a rare form of cancer. Some weeks later she returned to work with silicone-enhanced breasts.

Would breast implants be covered under the bank’s health plan? Does breast augmentation surgery qualify as a “serious health condition” under the FMLA? Did the employee take paid or unpaid leave?

All good questions. But to me the issue is honesty.

Honesty is an essential job requirement of every position at the bank. Fear of embarrassment or a desire to protect personal privacy is no excuse for lying to HR. Human resources personnel are obligated by law to treat medical information with the utmost confidentiality, and their reputation—not to mention their own job—depends on honoring that obligation.

A little appreciation, please

Somewhere buried in Hallmark’s calendar of random holidays is HR Appreciation Day. I don’t know the exact date, so let’s all pretend it’s today.

Take a moment to say thanks to HR for having those difficult conversations that line managers desperately want to avoid.

And to say thanks for having the patience, persistence, and compassion to work through the weird and arrive (sometimes!) at the wonderful.

Marian Exall

Marian Exall ( recently retired after a long career as an employment lawyer and HR professional with more than 25 years' experience advising banks and other employers on compliance issues. She was a principal and co-founder of Employment Law Compliance, Inc. which provides HR compliance solutions to banks. For more information on this or other employment compliance topics, please call Employment Law Compliance at 866-801-6302 or go to

Now retired from blogging as well, Marian also writes fiction. Her latest novel is a mystery called A Slippery Slope. For more information and to order, go to

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