Top 10 Employee Relations Articles of 2014

December 23, 2014

Forbidden love. Horrible bosses. Liars. Gossips. Toxic personalities. Miserable employees.

Those were among 2014’s best-read SHRM Online employee relations stories. Here’s a look at some of the articles that most piqued readers’ interest:

When the Bad Guy’s the Boss

It can be untenable for any HR manager: The company’s owner says or does something for which you’d fire most employees, but not only do you lack the authority to show the owner the door, you’re not even sure how to approach him or her about the behavior.

Lawsuits and government sanctions going back eight years indicate that Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling engaged in housing and racial discrimination. Yet not until his racist remarks were caught on tape and splashed across TV screens worldwide did the National Basketball Association (NBA) on April 28, 2014, take decisive action—imposing on Sterling a lifetime ban from the NBA and a $2.5 million fine, and pledging to force Sterling to sell his team.

What will ultimately ensue, most experts agree, will likely be a tangle of lawsuits and counter lawsuits that will cost Sterling, the Clippers organization and the NBA dearly in attorney fees and time, and perhaps worst of all, result in a badly blemished reputation.

Forbidden Love: Workplace-Romance Policies Now Stricter

The number of romances blooming at work may not have increased much in the past eight years, but company policies addressing them sure have, according to a survey by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). Moreover, those policies are a lot stricter today than they were in 2005, the last time SHRM conducted its Workplace Romance survey of HR professionals.

“People tend to look at workplace romance as a kind of fluffy topic, but for organizations, they’re taking them more seriously,” said Evren Esen, manager of SHRM’s Survey Research Center. “There only has to be one situation of a workplace romance gone bad to convince an HR department to adopt a policy.”

Workplace Gossip: What Crosses the Line?

Is it gossip to spread the news that Ted and Rachel are getting married before Ted and Rachel have announced so publicly?

Is it gossip to speculate whether Carol in accounting is expecting her second child?

A December 2013 National Labor Relations Board ruling addressing workplace no-gossip policies raises this question: When does gossip cross the line from innocuous, garden-variety conversation to something that is potentially hurtful, harmful or liable enough that companies are within their rights to forbid it?

Spotting the Liar

Shifty eyes? Crossed arms? Gaps in the resume?

To some, these cues might signal that an employee or job applicant isn’t being entirely forthcoming. But detecting deception requires more than familiarity with body language or red flags on applications, HR experts say.

“There’s no behavior unique to lying. You can only draw inferences, and you have to look at all factors involved,” said Joseph P. Buckley, president of John E. Reid and Associates, which trains people how to conduct investigative interviews.

Too Many Miserable Workers: Where Is HR Going Wrong?

From an HR standpoint, the numbers are practically apocalyptic: More than 2 in 3 U.S. workers are unhappy in their jobs, according to an October 2013 Gallup poll. That’s about 173 million people who drag themselves out of bed each morning with little to zero enthusiasm for the work that puts food on their tables.

It doesn’t sound like a ringing endorsement for the employee engagement efforts that most HR departments insist are a top priority.

But what if, as happiness guru Eric Karpinski suggests, it’s simply human nature to focus on the negative—and it’s up to HR managers to help employees “rewire” their brains so they dwell on the positive?

Starbucks’ New Dress Code Angers Employees, Customers

Starbucks’ decision to forbid employees from wearing engagement rings or other rings with stones—while relaxing its policy on tattoos—was not only a blow to worker morale, but may cost the company business, based on the backlash inspired by the coffee giant’s declaration.

After Starbucks announced its new dress code in October 2014, customers, employees and employees’ spouses took to posting angry comments on social media and reacting to online news stories.

Responding to a news story on, a poster calling himself “Justin” wrote: “So now my wife can’t wear her wedding ring during her shift? So who’s [sic] name do I put on the lawsuit when she’s harassed?”

Eeyores, Credit Thieves and Drama Queens

You won’t find it on a resume, but it’s one of the most important factors a worker brings to the job: personality.

Some personality types are so toxic they can poison everyone around them.

“We’re really good at dealing with skills stuff,” in hiring and performance reviews, said Mark Murphy, founder of Washington, D.C.-based Leadership IQ, a leadership training and research firm. “Eighty-nine percent of hiring failures come from attitude rather than skills issues.”

Flip-Flops and Spaghetti Straps: Can Summer ‘Casual’ Cross the Line?

You may not have to take it as far as one judge did when he banned sleeveless shirts in his courtroom, but it’s a good idea to revisit your summer dress code before you’re forced to address hot-weather attire that may be unsuitable at work.

During summer, many companies allow workers to dress more casually, which means women’s hemlines can creep up, men may show up in shorts and both may shed fancier footwear for flip-flops.

“The line that an employer draws should involve a balancing of several factors, such as risk management, culture of the workplace, and any image the employer wants to convey to clients, customers and other outsiders,” said David B. Monks, a partner with San Diego-based Fisher & Phillips LLP. “Sandals, capris and sleeveless shirts may be no big deal to some employers but simply not appropriate in the minds of other employers.”

Performance Reviews Without Pain

The new year can present an uncomfortable task for HR managers, who may find themselves having to give the following message to underperforming employees: “Happy holidays; you’re doing a terrible job.”

While no credible HR manager would be so blunt with a worker, near the end of the year, when many companies typically do performance reviews, managers must know how to present both good and bad news. Experts offer the following advice:

Provide enough warning during the year so a critical review doesn’t come as a shock to an employee. “A negative review should never come as a surprise,” said Mike Maughan, project market manager at Qualtrics 360, which sells data programs to help companies track and assess worker performance. “If it does come completely out of the blue, the manager is probably doing a poor job of handling his or her people.”

Laws Protect Convicted Applicants, Social Media Accounts and Marijuana Users

New protections for job applicants convicted of crimes, for employees who use medical marijuana and for workers’ private social media accounts are among the new state laws that took effect in 2014.

In 2013, five state legislatures passed laws legalizing same-sex marriage: Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Minnesota and Rhode Island. Nine states enacted social media privacy laws, while 14 raised their minimum wage.

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