Whether it’s a problem with a smelly co-worker or how to deal with someone who is abusing the Family and Medical Leave Act, odd employee situations usually wind up at the HR department’s doorstep.

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Whenever a difficult or bizarre situation regarding an employee comes up at work, the default refrain is: “Um, go ask human resources.”

Whether it’s a problem with a smelly co-worker or how to deal with someone who is abusing the Family and Medical Leave Act, odd employee situations usually wind up at the HR department’s doorstep.

Awkward issues are the hardest, says Jim Webber, a Lake Forest Park-based consultant, investigator and trainer in human resources and employment law. Webber travels to conferences giving talks for HR professionals about how to handle any sort of employee-relations issue. He also maintains a blog called Evil Skippy at Work, where workers seek advice about their trickiest workplace problems, many of which boil down to etiquette gaffes.

Nevertheless, with every issue, someone has to sit down and figure out how to handle it. “And that is the poor human resources person,” says Webber. “This is what drives HR people into therapy.”

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Once notified of a problem, HR staff first must determine whether the issue is something serious — such as a harassment claim — that already has a predetermined set of next steps, or whether it’s just an annoyance that must be delicately resolved.

Phantom dog

Webber was once asked to help an employee who claimed she experienced allergy symptoms from a co-worker’s dog. After sitting down with the employee and everyone else, he learned that no one in the office even owned a dog. The matter was dropped.

More difficult are issues that are real, and not imagined. Webber recounts an incident in which employees complained of a co-worker whose body odor was stinking up the cubicles. He checked it out with his own nose, and found that the reports were true.

The issue had to be dealt with; this involved asking the man how often he showered and suggesting that he improve his hygiene. The worker refused, saying he wanted to maintain his “manly scent,” which he took with him when he left the job soon after.

When the going gets weird, the weirdness often ends up in the form of medical leave, says Heather, who could not use her real name but agreed to talk about some issues she encountered during her 16 years as a human resources generalist in a Seattle hospital.

She recalls a worker who submitted a leave request for treatment of “nodes in the esophagus.” After the leave was approved, the employee came back to work looking like she had serious cosmetic surgery done on her face.

“If she had just let us know what she needed, we would’ve worked with her,” Heather says. “But she had to create this big, confusing story, and when I Googled the name of her doctor, of course, it was a plastic surgeon.”

The woman ended up getting fired for attendance issues, but not before creating a lot of havoc in the office.

Going by the book

The most difficult situations happen when a manager wants to fire an employee who is acting strangely, says Heather. She reminds the manager that he or she needs to go through necessary steps with the employee first. Has the manager informed the employee of the problem and provided clear expectations? Did the manager give the employee a chance to fix the problem?

“When I say, ‘No, you can’t fire someone without trying to correct the problem,’ I have the manager mad at me as well as the employee. But I do what I can to talk them down,” Heather says.

Webber agrees that sitting down and talking with the employee first is the best way to handle a sticky problem at work. “Be gentle and respectful, get to the point quickly and then get out of the room so everybody can be embarrassed in private,” he says.