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5 Awkward HR Questions Answered

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Let's face it, dealing with HR matters can get downright awkward. Difficult questions and uncomfortable situations affect companies of every size, industry and in every geographic area. 

Luckily, our experienced ScalePEO HR Pros know how to help! Read on for some of the more memorable questions they have gotten and learn what they recommended for each scenario.


Q:  We’ve had some complaints about pungent leftovers. Can we tell employees not to heat up stinky foods in the  breakroom? 

A:  There are no legal guidelines you have to follow, but I recommend sensitivity when addressing this issue. You definitely want to avoid making comments about certain types of food that could be interpreted as being directed at any ethnic populations in your workplace. Here are a few ideas you might consider:

  • Ask employees to refrain from microwaving pungent foods—in policies of this sort, we typically see mention of foods like fish and microwave popcorn.

  • Place the microwave in a space away from the break room and working areas.

  • Create an alternative break area for those who are sensitive to smell.

Ultimately, employees should be cognizant of the fact that they share a workspace with others who may have different food preferences. Not all food aromas can be eliminated, but some common courtesy from all parties can go a long way. It’s not unheard of for employers to remove the microwave from their workplace because of the issue you’ve described, but I would not recommend this step unless you have exhausted other alternatives.


Q:  Can I ask an employee if she's pregnant?

A:  We recommend you not ask an employee if she’s pregnant. Generally, employers may not inquire about an employee's private health information unless an employee has requested an accommodation or leave. It’s understandable that you will need to plan for her absence; however, pressuring her to notify you before she is ready could expose the company to potential liability.

Also, employees are under no obligation to inform their employer of a pregnancy. The only exception is if an employee is planning to take leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which requires 30 days' advance notice for leaves that are foreseeable.

We are often asked this question because employers believe they need to take special precautions with pregnant employees, so allow me to give you a bit of additional information on that subject:

  • You may not require medical certification that an employee may continue working while pregnant.

  • You should not put the employee on restricted duty or make any other modifications to her work unless she has informed you that she has restrictions due to a health condition.

  • You may not force a pregnant employee into a leave of absence or work restriction while she is still capable of performing the essential duties of her job.

  • The employee alone is responsible for making decisions that affect her safety and that of her future offspring.

  • You are prohibited from retaliating against an employee who has spoken up or registered any kind of complaint about interference with her sole decision-making.

  • Once the employee notifies you of the pregnancy, you should ensure that she knows she has options available to her if at some point she needs an accommodation to do her work. 


Q:  An employee has requested an advance on his pay, but we haven’t done this before and we’re hesitant to start the practice. What do you recommend? 

A:  While some organizations provide loans or advances to employees, we generally don’t recommend the practice.

Advances can be a benefit to employees and a kind gesture on behalf of employers, but there are two significant questions to consider: Are you prepared to offer this benefit to all similarly situated employees? And are you prepared to suffer a financial loss if the employee quits before you can recoup the money?

As to the first question, since this is a pretty significant perk, you wouldn’t want to offer it to one employee and not to another who is in a similar situation. Nor would you want to be inconsistent when setting limits on loan amounts or the number of times employees can receive them. If a claim of discrimination were brought against you, you would have to prove that Employee A’s circumstances were more compelling or urgent than Employee B’s. This could be very difficult. Also consider the administrative burden if employee requests for loans or advances become commonplace.

With respect to the second question, although deductions from paychecks to repay advances are generally allowable under the FLSA (interest payments may not cause their paycheck to fall below minimum wage), state regulations apply as well. State laws can significantly limit an employer’s ability to get their money back – particularly if the employee quits before the loan is repaid. Most states at least require a signed agreement, many say any deduction cannot take an employee below minimum wage, and several dictate that only a limited amount can be taken out of a final paycheck. Due to these laws, employers are not always able to recover money loaned to employees who have quit. While taking former employees to court is an option, it often costs more in both time and money than it’s worth.

For these reasons, we recommend against loans and advances and have a very brief policy statement on the subject that can be added to your handbook. However, if you really feel the need to offer an advance or loan, make sure that you get a signed agreement that details the terms of repayment, that you follow all applicable state laws, and that you are prepared to offer the same benefit to other employees if asked.


Q:  An employee recently got a tattoo on her arm. Can I require her to wear long sleeves at work to cover it? 

A:  I recommend following your written dress code policy on this matter. If your dress code policy does not address covering visible tattoos, or do so in a way you like, consider revising it. You may decide to prohibit visible tattoos entirely or you may simply prohibit tattoos that are offensive, distracting, inappropriate, or over a certain size. The policy could even be something general like “Tattoos must be appropriate and in keeping with a professional image.”

Tattoo policies usually depend on the culture of the workplace. Some employers avoid restrictive dress codes because they can negatively affect morale and may drive away impressive job candidates. Other employers prefer a strict dress code to maintain a certain company image.

Whatever you decide, your policy and practice must allow for religious accommodations. Some religions do not permit the covering of tattoos or other religious items, and you should be prepared to make exceptions.

When you’ve decided on a policy, be sure to communicate your reasons to employees and apply the policy consistently.


Q:  An employee has posted political signs at his desk. Can we ask him to remove them? Or is displaying them considered an employee right?

A:  Generally speaking, a private employer can ask an employee to remove political signs—or otherwise limit political expression in the workplace—as long as they don't run afoul of protected Section 7 rights or applicable state laws.

Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act gives employees the right to talk about the terms and conditions of their work and the right to unionize. While this law protects some political activities, it doesn’t give employees a right to display political signs at their workstations or the right to discuss, during work hours, politics that aren’t work-related.

Employers who decide to limit speech should have and follow a non-solicitation policy. It is also important to keep in mind that several states more broadly protect the political speech of employees while off duty, so employers should focus on workplace behavior and not on limiting the beliefs or protected outside activities of their employees.


Legal Disclaimer: This article does not and is not intended to contain legal advice, and its contents do not constitute the practice of law or provision of legal counsel.

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