Category Archives: Workplace Policies

Headphones at Work: Part 2

More than three years ago, I wrote a post about headphones at work. The post set out a number of problems with the use of headphones and also listed a number of situations in which wearing headphones at work may be appropriate if permission is granted. At the end, I asked if maybe it was easier to just ban headphones altogether. I still get occasional responses to this question: a resounding no.

Last November, the Seattle Times had an article subtitled “The science of picking the right music at work” (searchable at different sites). The article stated, “An extensive body of research shows what headphone wearers have known for years: When wielded the right way, music and noise can increase your output and make the workday go by faster.” The article outlined several instances where studies show that music can help employees:

  • For repetitive work such as data entry, it aids productivity.
  • To decompress after a tense meeting, listening to rhythmically simple music with 70-90 beats per minute can help.
  • To stay alert without caffeine, you want a good syncopated beat of 120-140 beats per minute.
  • For moderate-skill workers doing computer code, productivity increases if they can listen to the music of their choice.

What interested me the most, as a workplace coach, was research showing that positive, affirming lyrics are also important. The article noted, for example, that this can particularly help before a presentation or job interview.

So does this mean that headphones are always a good idea at work? Of course not. It does suggest, however, that employers will not want to have a knee-jerk “No” response if employees want to wear them. Rather, employers will want to create evidence-based and fair headphone rules. These will consider what the job requires, how to address safety or distraction concerns, and whether compromises are necessary, e.g., allowing an employee to wear them for only part of the day or during certain tasks, or requiring the employee to use an ear bud in one ear only.

What if an employee wants to listen to books on tape or NPR ?  ~Amy Stephson

Workplace Gossip Policies Revisited

Three years ago, I wrote a post asking whether it was a good idea for employers to institute workplace anti-gossip policies.  As everyone knows, gossip in the workplace is ubiquitous and inevitable — and can be devastating to an organization and individuals if it goes beyond a certain point. I left the issue open, but such policies do raise a number of questions.

One, for example, is how to define and regulate “gossip.” One person’s gossip, after all, may be another person’s discussion of problematic personal interactions or work conditions (see below). Another question is how to monitor gossip: no wants to encourage a tattle tale, “Mommy, he was mean to me!” culture.  In addition, many believe that excessive gossip reflects other problems in the workplace such as inadequate communication or perceived inequities — and management’s job is to tackle those problems, not the negative effects.

Recently, moreover, things have occurred in the legal landscape that make this issue more complicated. The National Labor Relations Board has ruled that a range of employee communications, even by those who work in non-union workplaces, are legally protected under Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act.  That section gives employees the right to engage in “concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection” when such activity addresses terms and conditions of employment.

Using this law, the NLRB has ruled that employees cannot be disciplined for engaging in protected activity, including for communications about work issues on social media. It also has invalidated employee handbook provisions that suggest that an employee could be disciplined for engaging in such activity. In one case, for example, the NLRB criticized an employer’s handbook statement that employees needed to be “courteous, polite and friendly” and could not be “disrespectful” or use language that injured the image or reputation of the company.

It is beyond the scope of this blog to discuss the legal parameters of this emerging area of the law.  Suffice it to say that if several employees are talking about how cheap the boss is because they haven’t gotten raises in two years, that is likely going to be protected concerted activity regarding wages and they cannot be disciplined for this conversation.  On the other hand, if several employees are discussing what a “tramp” a co-worker is, that is likely not protected as it does not pertain to working conditions. 

So where does this leave employers who are thinking of implementing anti-gossip policies?  Proceed with caution. And when in doubt, consult a lawyer. It remains important, however, to address gossip that may rise to the level of harassment or discrimination, and more generally to address morale issues that may result from excessive gossip or badmouthing.

What are your thoughts?  ~Amy Stephson

Let’s Celebrate!!!

Yes, it’s time for all those workplace holiday parties…and, they’re fraught with traps that can turn a fun, collegial time into a disaster.  So, here are some things to keep in mind for a great, safe and fun time:

  1.  Make it a Holiday Party:  By now you’ve likely figured out that a party sponsored by the employer needs to be a “holiday party” – not a Christmas or Hanukkah or Kwanza party (unless you work in a religious organization).  Yes, I know it’s lame.  And no, no one’s trying to do away with Christmas (or Hanukkah or Kwanza for that matter…).  But, if you’re the employer, keep it generic.  You don’t want to get back to work after the New Year to find a religion discrimination complaint on your desk.
  2. Make it voluntary:  There may well be employees who, for whatever reason, would rather not party with you.  Let them make that choice, and don’t give them a bad time if they choose not to join you.  If you’re giving everyone who attends the party the afternoon off to do so, let employees who choose not to attend leave work if they want to.
  3. Watch the alcohol (and, in Washington, the marijuana):  The party host (in this case, the employer,) can be held liable if a drunk (or stoned) party-goer leaves, gets in the car, and crashes into something or someone.  Don’t let people leave and drive impaired: arrange for designated drivers or taxis ahead of time, and make sure people use them.
  4. Gift exchanges can be great fun – but limit the amount people should spend and, if you have any reason at all to think that even small amounts of expenditures will be hard on participants, make it a white elephant gift exchange (everyone has something at home they’d like to get rid of!)  It can be just as much (or more) fun – and isn’t that the point?
  5. Make sure everyone’s comfortable: impaired brains sometimes think that behavior that would never be acceptable at work is acceptable at a work party, but that’s not so.  If it would be considered harassment at work, it can result in a complaint if it happens at a work party.  No stolen kisses, pinches or hugs allowed, no off-color jokes, either.
  6. Make sure the rules are clear ahead of time.  Let people know what to expect (food, alcohol, gifts, attire, behavior…) and you’ll all have a great time celebrating!

Happy Holidays to all, and a Happy New Year as well from Daphne and Amy, your Workplace Insiders.


~Daphne Schneider

Headphones at Work?

I recently read a post in Dave Clemens’ HR Cafe on the issue of whether employers should let employees listen to music or other material on headphones while at work. He noted that surveys  show that employees feel more productive and satisfied while listening to music, books, etc. and that with headphones on, they’re less distracted. He then went on to discuss when it might be inappropriate to let employees do this (e.g., if they’re in customer service) and the dangers inherent in wearing headphones such as failure to hear a fire alarm or co-worker questions.

This got me thinking.  My main thought being: I don’t think employees should be on headphones during work. 

I must confess first that I don’t like the modern habit of listening to music 24/7: on the bus, when walking, when shopping, etc.  I believe in interacting with the world, not being perpetually distracted and separate from it.

That being said, some activities are very boring — exercise at the gym, for example–and even I can’t condemn doing something else while exercising.

So with that as a starting point, maybe wearing headphones at work can be appropriately allowed if: (1) the work is fairly solitary and repetitive; (2) listening to music, news or whatever will not affect accuracy or other elements of job performance; and (3) the employee can still readily hear what’s going on around him or her.  I would also add that the employee needs permission to wear headphones and that he or she should not be allowed to wear them for excessively long periods of time and certainly not all day.

There are (at least) two problems, however, with my criteria: they potentially pigeonhole certain jobs and can create resentment among others who are not allowed to wear headphones.  The answer to the first problem, of course, is not to label the headphone-appropriate jobs as “boring.” Other, more positive descriptions such as those used above are better.  As for the second problem, if the criteria are clearly stated and consistently applied, theoretically there will be no grounds for complaint. Or maybe an employer can institute “Headphone Friday.”

On the other hand, maybe it’s just easier to ban headphones altogether. Your thoughts?  ~Amy Stephson

Is Training the Right Answer?

As you might imagine, it depends.  Let’s look at a few workplace challenges and see.

Situation 1:  You’ve just learned that though there are a number of anti-harassment policies on the books at your workplace, no one really knows about them.  Is training the right answer?  Probably.  Many court cases have shown that even if you have policies, if you’ve never provided anti-harassment training to your employees, you could be held liable for any illegal harassment they perpetrate. So what do you have to do?  It doesn’t have to be difficult or complicated.  An hour or two to go over the policies, talk about the gray areas (there are many), answer questions, lay out some scenarios for folks to think about – that could be sufficient.  This is really about raising awareness and understanding.  You could do more, but this minimum will work for a start.  Do document that you provided the training, and keep a record of who attended – best done by having employees sign into the training and attest with their signature that they received a copy of the policy.

Situation 2: You’ve just had yet another complaint about one of your supervisors.  She tends to lose her temper and yell at her subordinates.  She sometimes apologizes later, but not always.  This has been going on for years – and other than this, she’s really a pretty good employee.  Is training the right answer?  Maybe.  But first, expectations need to be set by her supervisor, who needs to be clear with her that yelling at her subordinates (even if she later apologizes) is not acceptable.  Likely this has become a habit for her when she gets frustrated, so she’ll need to learn other (acceptable) ways to cope with her frustrations.  It’s unlikely that simply sending her to a communication or supervisory skills workshop will address her specific needs, but she may get tips at such a workshop that she can use.  So, if you send her, tell her you expect her to return with specific strategies to use when her employees frustrate her, instead of yelling at them.  Then, regularly monitor her to ensure she’s applying what she learned in the workshop.   Providing some individual coaching for her would actually be a better approach because a coach could help her with specific employee situations that frustrate her.

Situation 3:  Yours is, and has been, a very negative workplace.  Everyone gripes, makes snide comments, and puts their coworkers down.  Employees complain about management, the work, the customers and each other.  It’s pretty much always been like this. Good employees regularly leave for other environments that are more positive, which just leaves everyone else with more negative things to say.   Is training the right answer?  Training might be part of the right answer, but this is first and foremost a culture change issue, not a training issue.  To change how people behave in this organization, management will first need to lead a commitment process that speaks to values that promote positive behavior and good customer service.  Then they will need to set performance expectations around those values, hold themselves and their supervisors accountable for meeting those expectations, and finally hold their employees accountable for them as well.  Then, if needed, it may be appropriate to provide training for staff in how to behave to live those new positive values.

So, though we’re often tempted to fix all workplace problems by providing some training, it’s not necessarily the right (or only) answer.  As someone once said, if the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail.  Expand your toolbox!

Have you had a good (or not so good) experience using training to solve a workplace problem?  We’d love to hear from you!  ~Daphne Schneider

The Challenge of Facebook (and other social networking sites)

Washington Representative Jay Inslee fires staff members for making nasty comments on Facebook.  College team coaches demand they be ‘friended’ on Facebook before allowing someone on the team in order to monitor their activities.  Privacy rights groups rally supporters because some employers require they be ‘friended’ on Facebook before they agree to hire someone.  Yikes!  What’s the right thing for an employer to do here if they’re worried about what their employees might say about them on social networking sites???

 I’ve been thinking about this question and the varied responses to it.  How should  employers approach their employees’ inclinations to do and say things publicly that could have negative repercussions on the organization? We have a right to say what we want, don’t we?  Remember freedom of speech?  Yes…but…

 I was very pleased to learn that SkagitCounty, Washington recently developed a policy to address this very issue.  It’s short, to the point, and tells employees what the rules, expectations and possible consequences are:

Employees should assume their free speech (including letters to the editor, communication through social media outlets, presentations, etc.) could have an impact on their position at SkagitCounty. Employees have the right to express themselves as individuals. However if an employee’s free speech damages working relationships or negatively affects the public perception of Skagit County that may be grounds for corrective action, up to and including termination of employment. This is because such statements can undermine the agency’s mission, purpose and reputation.

Employees do not have the right to represent themselves as speaking on behalf of SkagitCounty unless they are officially authorized to do so. Additionally any County business conducted on personal social networking accounts or web sites may be subject to Public Disclosure Laws even if produced on personal time or equipment.

This policy is not intended to and will not be applied to improperly restrict employees from engaging in concerted activity, including discussing their wages, hours and working conditions with other employees.


Does that mean I can’t say my boss is an SOB and my coworker’s an idiot on my Facebook page?  Yes, it does.  Does it mean I can’t boast on Facebook about using the company cell phone to talk to my mom inTallahassee?  Well, I can – but there could be serious consequences.  And, if I work for a public agency, at least in the state ofWashington, all of that could land on the front page of the newspaper after a public records request because I’m talking about my work in the public sphere.

It’s likely that at some point this issue will be addressed in a lawsuit from one side or the other.  Meanwhile, I’d strongly suggest that every employer create a policy that clearly states your expectations for your employees – and I’d encourage you to use SkagitCounty’s as a model.

Have you been dealing with social networking issues at your workplace?  Tell us what’s going on!  ~Daphne Schneider

The Fragrance-Free Workplace

Disability accommodation litigation as well as employee complaints have led many employers to develop scent-free workplace policies.  Is there a good way to go about adding such a policy and a bad way? Of course.

The bad way.  Be self-righteous about the iniquity of wearing smelly chemicals and the rights of employees to a fragrance-free workplace. Spring the policy on employees with no warning or discussion. Hang obnoxious accusatory unwelcoming signs around the workplace. (The online Canary Report has some excellent examples of this type of sign. Scroll down to “Signs”).

The good way. First: keep it short and simple.  No need for long explanations, accusations, medico-legal discussions, etc.  Second: get input from employees before enacting the policy and give them some lead time.  (This may sound silly – how hard is it to stop wearing perfume? – but some may have to change their deodorant or hairspray practices!)  For a discussion of a thorough fragrance policy adoption process, check out the Canadian Lung Association website and type in “scent-free.”  Third, if needed, put some clear but respectful signs around the office. 

So what’s a good fragrance policy look like? After reading a number of policies online, here is my contribution to the literature.  It’s an amalgam of two policies, one from the Society for Human Resource Management website, the other from a unit of Kaiser Permanente:

“Employees and visitors to our organization may have sensitivity and/or allergic reactions to various fragrant products.  Therefore, [Company Name] is a fragrance-free workplace. Personal products (fragrances, colognes, lotions, powders, deodorants, shaving and hair products, and other similar items) that are perceptible to others should not be worn by employees. Other fragrant products (scented candles, potpourri and similar items) are also not permitted in the workplace.

Any employee with a concern about scents or odors should contact his or her manager or the Human Resource Department.”

What are your thoughts or experiences with workplace fragrance policies?  ~Amy Stephson

Social Media Part 2: Trashing the Boss

In my previous post, I discussed employer social media policies. Left unanswered was the question: What if an employee trashes the company or their boss? Like many other employment issues, this one is complicated.

The source of the complication is Section 7 of the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C. Sec. 157), which protects any employee who “engage[s] in … concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protection.” This applies to all employees, not just union employees. Among other things it means that employees are entitled to discuss with each other the terms and conditions of their employment.

In the social media context, this means that employees may express concerns online about their employers if it can be deemed concerted activity regarding work conditions. So if two or three employees go online and start a discussion of how low their wages are and what they can do to increase them, this is protected, even if they say some unkind things about the boss along the way.

Mere rants by one employee, however, may be punishable. For example, in one case a bartender was fired for griping to his stepsister on Facebook about his pay and insulting his customers. Among other things he called the bar’s customers “rednecks” and said he hoped they choked on glass as they drove home drunk.

This a developing area of the law for employers and there is a lot of online commentary about it. For a comprehensive overview of what’s happening, check out a hot-off-the-press report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Have you had any experiences with employee use of social media?  ~Amy Stephson

Want a Social Media Policy?

More and more employees are using social media (Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, personal blogs, etc.) on a routine basis.  Why do employers care?  Because employees may get online and merrily create discrimination, hostile environment, or defamation claims, hurt the organization’s reputation or brand, create antitrust liability, or otherwise cause heartburn for the organization and its other employees. 

In earlier posts about Facebook and online romance, we discussed the potential harassment implications of online posts by employees about other employees.  In this post, I’m going to briefly address the kinds of provisions that an employer will want to include if it decides to draft a social media policy for its employees. 

There are a number of theories as to how to draft a social media policy, including advice on how to get employees to actually follow the policy.  Sticking to basics, however,  employers will want to make sure that four points are included one way or the other:

  • Employees are responsible, both legally and generally, for the content of their online activities.  While you likely don’t want to say it in the policy, this means: “Employees, you can be sued or fired for what you say online so be careful!”  Alternatively it means: “Don’t be stupid!”
  • If an employee is discussing anything relating to the employer, e.g., its products and services, the employee must identify him or herself as an employee and make it clear that he or she is not speaking for the company.  In fact, Federal Trade Commission guidelines require an employee who endorses a company’s products or services to disclose the employment relationship. See,  
  • Employees may not disclose confidential or propriety information about the employer.  No stock tips either: the Securities and Exchange Commission prohibits insider trading tips and this includes tips via social media.  See
  • Employees should not mention clients or other employees without their approval.

If you want to see a comprehensive policy, check out IBM’s “Social Computing Guidelines,” which you can find at  It’s a veritable statute, with a preamble, guidelines, and detailed commentary – and is a good place to start. There are numerous other sample policies online as well.

So what about a policy that tells employees they can’t trash the company or their boss online?  Stay tuned: this is more complicated than you might think.  I’ll write about it in my next post.  In the meantime, do you have any tips on social media policies?   ~Amy Stephson

What did you say?????

The Problem: What is (or is not) appropriate communication in today’s workplace? Seems like a simple question, but over the years I’ve learned that it’s anything but. Take Company A, where the employees are good friends outside of work as well, and have known each other professionally and personally for years. They’re open about their personal lives…including how things are going in the bedroom…and don’t notice when the temp they’ve hired turns red as she hears the conversation going on around her. Appropriate?

Or, how about that construction Company B where “f-bombs” are a regular part of the vocabulary, along with other four-letter words. In this particular setting such language is only acceptable when used to talk about situations – never to talk to or about people. So, it’s alright to say, “f—” when you hit your thumb with a hammer, or to talk about the “sh—y weather” that’s preventing your from pouring concrete. However, when one new hire gets mad at someone and calls him a “f—ing idiot” everyone stops and stares, mortified. How was the new person supposed to know this use of an “f-bomb” was unacceptable, while other uses are OK?

And then there’s the ad agency Company C where employees regularly send x-rated cell phone text messages and pictures to groups of other employees who all work in cubicles in one big space. So, when one person sends out a text or picture to everyone else, the whole room erupts in laughter at the same time. It’s all great fun till a client happens to be walking through on the way to a conference room when this happens, asks what’s going on, is shown the message and becomes outraged. Can what you do with your personal phone get you in trouble at work? Sure – if it’s done on work time or work premises!

What to do: We all know that this is a difficult and complicated issue. What one person finds funny, another finds offensive. One person’s normal way of speaking hurts another person’s sensibilities – or feelings. Everyone laughed at yesterday’s dirty joke, but today several people said the new joke crossed a line – a line which the joke teller didn’t even know was there.

It’s tempting to simply tell people to use “common sense” – except that I’ve learned there is no such thing. You can’t assume that people will define acceptable and unacceptable language the same way. So, if you’re the supervisor or manager, have the conversation with your staff. Talk about what your expectations are – and yes, you get to have expectations about appropriate language in your workplace. Don’t assume people understand things the way you do. Develop and share clear expectations for oral and written communication, for paper, e-mail, instant message, text message and social media communication. Be clear about the use of four-letter words (whether that’s ever acceptable and if so, when) and sexual and racial language (I strongly recommend strictly forbidding all sexual or racial slurs). But also realize that no matter how clear you are, there will be many shades of gray. Make it OK to talk about those shades of gray, and invite conversation if questions come up. You will have come a long way if you set clear expectations, but also appreciate and openly acknowledge the complexity of this issue, and communicate your willingness to talk about it.