HR Tip of the Week

Posted on  |  Performance management

3 Unusual Employee Complaints and How to Respond

Employers face a variety of workplace issues every day, some more common than others. Here are a few more unusual workplace complaints and how to address them.

Employee Complaint #1: Co-workers' Time Off for Family Reasons

"My co-workers get time off when their child is sick or has a school play. I think it's unfair that I don't get extra time off simply because I don't have any children. Plus, when they're out, I have to carry more of the workload."

Background:

Under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA) and similar state laws, employees are entitled to job-protected leave for their own serious health condition, to care for a family member with a serious health condition, and for certain family military reasons. Additionally, many jurisdictions have enacted laws that require employers to provide paid sick leave for the employee's own illness or injury and to care for a family member with an illness or injury. Also, some states allow employees to take time off for their child's school-related activities.

Best Practice:

First, be sure your leave policies and practices comply with all applicable laws. For example, denying FMLA leave to an eligible employee who needs to take care of a parent with a serious health condition would violate the FMLA. Additionally, approving paid-time-off and flexible-work-schedule requests by parents but not those without children may violate nondiscrimination rules in certain jurisdictions. Provided your policies and practices comply with all applicable rules, consider the following approaches for addressing these types of complaints:

  • Explain that employees are entitled to leave under certain laws and company policies and that in many cases employees don't need to have children to be entitled to such leave. Provide an example and encourage the employee to review your leave policies and to request leave when needed.
  • Consider whether changes to your benefits package could make your policies more inclusive.
  • Address the increased workload when co-workers are out on leave. Be empathetic and engage the employee in a discussion about the problems they are facing. Work with them to develop strategies for managing the additional workload.
  • Consider whether your policies and practices are having a disproportionate impact on single employees and/or those without children. For example, is the workload of the employee on leave being evenly distributed among co-workers, or does it appear that employees without children are shouldering most of the load?

Employee Complaint #2: Dress Code

"Why do I have to take off my hat at work but a co-worker is allowed to wear a headscarf?"

Background:

Title VII of the Civil Rights Act ("Title VII") prohibits employers with 15 or more employees from discriminating against applicants and employees on the basis of religion, among other things. Covered employers must also provide reasonable accommodations for employees' sincerely held religious beliefs or practices (such as exceptions to dress codes), unless it would cause an undue hardship. Many states have similar laws, some of which cover smaller employers.

Best Practice:

When responding to this type of complaint, consider telling the employee your company grants reasonable accommodations in accordance with federal and state law and refer the employee to your handbook for more information on these policies. To protect employees' privacy, avoid discussing why you granted an accommodation in a particular case.

Employee Complaint #3: Banning Marijuana, Even Though it's Legal Here

"You allow employees to smoke cigarettes on their breaks outside, but I can be disciplined ("up to and including termination") for smoking marijuana, even though our state now allows recreational marijuana. That seems unfair to me."

Background:

While marijuana remains illegal under federal law, many states have enacted laws to allow individuals to use marijuana for medicinal purposes. Additionally, about 10 states permit recreational marijuana. However, no state requires employers to allow employees to use, possess, or be impaired by marijuana during work hours, in the workplace, and/or on company property. Employers can still prohibit marijuana use at work, just as employers may prohibit alcohol use or cigarette use.

Best Practice:

Be clear that you are exercising your right to prohibit employees from using, possessing, or being impaired by marijuana during work hours, in the workplace, and/or on company property. Additionally, make sure that drug-free workplace policies are drafted carefully to make clear that employees are prohibited from using, possessing, or being impaired by drugs that are illegal under federal or state law (including marijuana) at work or during work hours.

Conclusion:

Because employees often approach their supervisors with concerns or requests first, it's a best practice to train supervisors on how to handle various inquiries, and when to escalate issues to human resources, management, or legal counsel.

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