5 Workplace Situations That Just Won't Wait

A typical workday may have you setting priorities and communicating them to your team, everything neatly aligned with your strategic plan. No matter what your road map tells you, though, there are some workplace situations that can't wait. Here are five that should always demand your attention now.

Claims of Sexual Harassment

An employee complains that a co-worker never addresses her by name but calls her “beautiful” or “good-looking” instead. This behavior makes the employee uncomfortable.

Take complaints seriously. Avoid categorizing any employee complaints – including sexual harassment complaints – as inconsequential. Gather facts and, if possible, get statements from witnesses. Speak directly with the accused, explain that certain behaviors have been brought to your attention, and ask to hear about the situation from his or her perspective. Be open-minded and objective. Be respectful toward all parties involved. Document your activities.

Follow-up. Meet with the employee who expressed the concern. Explain specific actions taken to remedy the problem. Confirm that he or she feels comfortable at work, given this resolution. Finally, ask to be informed of further incidents.

The immediate goal is to prevent further harassment. Your long-term goal is to establish and maintain a professional work environment.

Set the tone for appropriate behavior by modeling respect in the workplace and creating policies that support your values. Policies should cover standards of appropriate language and behavior, definitions of inappropriate language and behavior, methods of dealing with complaints, and consequences for violations. Your state's Employment or Labor Department will have guidelines to help you develop appropriate policies.

Paycheck Errors

An employee questions the accuracy of her paycheck.

Communicate. Let the employee know that you are committed to prompt resolution of any payroll problems. Direct your payroll staff or outside payroll provider to address concerns quickly, preferably by the end of the workday. Certain matters may require more time to investigate but make sure that resolution happens within deadlines specified by the Department of Labor and your company’s policies.

Be proactive. Make sure your payroll team can handle payroll nuances and respond quickly to concerns. Direct them to confirm proper treatment of pay-rate increases for merit raises and promotions, adjustments to income tax withholdings, updates to employee deductions, increases in 401k contributions, etc. before finalizing payroll and distributing paychecks.

Be especially careful in setting rules about bonuses and sales commissions. Make sure that everyone -- your employees, your payroll group, and you -- share a common understanding of how these payouts are calculated. Advise employees of any changes prior to paycheck distribution and ask them to alert you to any problems.

Employees under Drug Influence

You or one of your managers observes that an employee is exhibiting erratic behavior, seems excessively drowsy, or has become dramatically less productive.

Ask the employee to stop working. Don’t accuse the employee of substance abuse. Your priority is to maintain a safe workplace rather than expose underlying problems. Focus on eliminating the possibility of injury to either the suspected employee or others. Explain why you have pulled the employee aside, and allow him or her to offer an explanation of the behavior. Depending on the response, a drug test may be appropriate. If the employee is impaired, have him or her escorted to the test facility and then home.

Follow-up when the employee returns to work. Sit down with the employee to discuss any non-drug-related problems that may be causing unusual behavior. If the drug test confirms drug use, take the appropriate next step, which may include a warning on the use of certain drugs, referral to substance abuse counseling, or termination.

Develop policies that will help prevent substance abuse. Your state Employment or Labor Department and OSHA both have guidelines to help you create a substance abuse policy. If you establish your business as a drug-free workplace, require negative test results from drug screens as a condition of employment and arrange for random testing of all employees.

Workplace Accidents

An employee is injured in an accident at your workplace.

Seek medical evaluation and treatment immediately. Prompt care will ensure the best outcome and avoid complications. Depending on the nature of the accident, suspend activity in the area in which the injured employee was working.

Next, investigate the accident. Observe workplace conditions and talk to witnesses and the injured employee (if possible) to get a clear picture of the events that led to the accident. Address any safety violations before anyone else is allowed to enter the area. Over the following days, pinpoint the cause and devise a plan to remedy safety problems.

Consider a risk assessment. Comprehensive safety programs can provide a framework for preventing accidents, responding to them, and taking corrective action later. Ask your insurance carrier to conduct a risk assessment (relating to workers’ compensation insurance coverage) and provide guidance on accident prevention. To augment the safety program, create an incident-response plan to guide decision-making immediately following an accident.

Irate Customers

A customer is incensed about a real (or perceived) failure on your business’s part to deliver results as required and expected.

Respond immediately. Your goal is to prevent escalation and collateral damage. Customer service policies, though useful as a guide for most interactions, may not be helpful in situations with irate customers. Solutions will vary depending on the nature of the problem but may include invoice adjustments. Getting to the root cause of the problem and making corrections to underlying processes are essential, but you may not have the leisure to wait for an investigation; taking immediate action, even if based on imperfect information, is the better course.

Plan ahead. Before you deliver a product or service, verify that your company is in full compliance with all specifications so you can articulate and defend your position if conflicts arise. For less clear situations, consider examining and updating your marketing communications so that your products or services are more closely aligned with customer expectations. In some situations, though, you’ll need to identify and get rid of bad customers before problems surface.

You may never encounter these high-risk, sensitive situations. But planning now to avoid them and deal with the unexpected can help your workday go smoother, every day.

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