How HR Staff Have to Think about Issues

Use the Answer to a Superficially Simple Question to View HR Decision Making

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The employee question seems simple, straight-forward, and should be easy to answer. Right? Not if your job is in Human Resources. Even the simplest employee question raises countless red flags for an employer’s HR team. Once again, you walk that five-pronged path. How do you satisfy all five stakeholders while treating the current employee fairly?

What’s best for the employer? What’s best for the employee?

What’s legal or required by a government agency? What sets the precedent for future decisions about and fair treatment of employees? What decision will get you sued with all of the concurrent costs and aggravation?

You can’t make a decision unless the decision satisfies all five stakeholders – to some degree. Is it really any wonder that sometimes it’s the employee stakeholder who suffers? Here’s how Human Resources people have to think and make decisions to answer an employee question. Let's use the modification of this company trade show travel policy as an example.

How HR Thinks, Makes Decisions, and Answers Questions

The question supplied by a reader seemed simple enough. An employee, who travels on company business to trade shows and other client events, wanted to extend his time in the event city by using vacation time. No problem.

No problem, that is, until HR informed him about how the days would be charged against his paid vacation time.

With sympathy to both HR and the employee, here’s how an HR person has to think and make decisions.

The employee traveled on Sunday to a trade show. (No problem with this travel time; the company, by policy, that all employees understand, does not pay weekend travel time for exempt employees.) The employee worked Monday through Wednesday at the trade show and wanted to begin vacation day use following the event.

Okay, said the HR manager, Thursday and Friday are vacation days. No, responded the employee, on Thursday, I would normally travel back to the company; since that day would be paid as part of my normal work week, it is not fair to make me take a vacation day to cover Thursday. Are you with me?

HR Thinking and Decision-Making Starts to Roll

Okay, says the HR manager, whose first inclination is to charge Thursday as a vacation day since the employee is not, in fact, using the day to travel back to the company. The HR person, rightly, does not want to have to make employee time-off decisions on a case-by-case basis, for employees attending company sponsored events.

Checking with a couple of CEOs and another HR person, both decisions had supporters. If the employee was expected to return from the conference on Wednesday and work on Thursday, then Thursday should be a vacation day.

If Thursday would normally be a travel day, it would count as a work day, not as a vacation day. Under normal circumstances, he would travel back anyway and the company shouldn't penalize him because he extended his stay with a vacation.

But, he has chosen not to travel back but instead to go on vacation, said the dissenters. That is not the company’s problem and we only pay for travel time if the employee uses the weekday to travel back. Since we do not pay for any travel time on weekends and there is no such thing as a travel day, employees should only be paid if they are working.

Plus, normally an employee, unless he was assigned to booth teardown, would be expected to travel back on the Wednesday and report to work on Thursday. He could arrange to arrive late with his manager if his flight was a red eye.

In that case, no question, Thursday should be charged as a vacation day. But, what has been past practice in the company? Are employees expected to travel back on Wednesday, if possible, or is Thursday the normal day of travel to return.

In my experience, most employees want to return to home and work as soon as possible. So, they travel home on Wednesday if any flight is possible, rather than spending a night hanging out by themselves in a strange city with nothing to do.

This is also a private versus public employee sector question. If you are a public sector employee, often working under the negotiated conditions of a union contract, you expect such considerations as payment for every minute that you work. If not in direct compensation, a public sector employee expects comp time for hours worked and would expect to be paid for traveling on the weekend, too.

This thinking is anathema to a private sector employer who expects exempt employees to get the job done and meet the goals. In fact, thinking like an hourly employee will impede your career and make you less valued as an employee. Here are some earlier thoughts about compensating employees for travel time.

If the employee is an hourly or nonexempt employee, employers have to take into account paid travel time, plus hours worked at the trade show. When an employee is eligible for over-time, these regulations apply even on the road.

(This is one of my theories about why nonexempt employees are so rarely asked to travel for customer events and training. The government regulations make their attendance cost prohibitive – or at least - a pain in the behind to account for and pay by employers. And, as much as these rules may inhibit the utilization of and career growth of hourly employees, my sympathies are with the employers.)

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More Considerations for the HR Decision about Trade Show Policy

The next problem that HR needs to consider, in this case, is that many employees travel frequently for trade show and other company events. A decision made, in this case, has far-reaching ramifications for the employer and decisions about other employee requests in the future.

Does HR really want to make these decisions on a case-by-case basis? At what point does work end and vacation begin? When the trade show ends at 4 p.m. on Wednesday?

When the last plane leaves for the employee’s home city on Wednesday evening? What if there is no plane on Wednesday? How much documentation and research will HR have to require in the future from other employees to ensure that company time off accounting decisions are consistent and fair?

At some point, HR has to determine that a decision in favor of allowing this employee to use Thursday as a vacation day has too many ramifications for similar requests in the future. The employee will feel understandably unhappy.

But, no one in HR, whom I know, wants to spend their work time as the HR time charge cop. The employee is choosing not to travel back on paid time; he can travel back if he wants pay, and then go on vacation. Any other decision opens up way too big of a can of worms.

One final thought for the HR person involves how employees have been treated in the past. Do employees generally travel on Wednesday night or Thursday? If Thursday, are they expected to show up in the office? If Wednesday night, how much of Thursday have they been expected to work?

If, in the normal course of business, he'd come back Wednesday night, then Thursday should count as vacation. If, in the normal course of business, he’d travel Thursday, but be expected to also show up in the workplace on Thursday, then Thursday should be charged as a vacation day.

Ah, it’s the first time you’ve ever encountered this question? Great. You have the chance to set the precedent and establish your company’s travel policy and practices.

You probably even get to add your decision to the employee handbook, so all employees know the lay of the land to guide their decision making in the future.

HR Reaches a Solution

How about this for a solution to the current question? How has the company handled employee travel to trade shows and customer events in the past? Do employees fly back that night and work the next day or does the company give them leeway and let them fly back the day after the event and report to work the following day?

Determine what has governed the management of these practices in the past, according to several of your managers who are responsible for the employees who attend customer-facing events. Past practice will determine the use of a vacation day – or not – for the absence on Thursday.

What if you discover - as is likely - that practices have been inconsistent across the board and no clear prior practice exists? I’d draw a line in the sand. Tell the currently asking employee, who had no rules to guide him, that he can use a vacation day for Thursday. Then:

  • develop your policy,
  • add the policy to the employee handbook,
  • train employees who travel about the revised policy,
  • let managers know that management discretion will no longer guide employee travel decisions because the decisions have not been consistent and fair, and
  • use the new policy to make consistent, fair decisions in the future.

Travel Policy Language for Future

In a company where employees travel frequently for business, and especially if the employee group is large, it'd be a nightmare for the company to make decisions on a case-by-case basis and the company could never be fair across the board. Documentation requirements for employees add an unnecessary burden.

Nitpicking with good, contributing employees over minute time tracking is insulting and demeaning – for the manager, HR, and the employee. And, it defeats your purpose of trusting employees, treating employees like adults, and expecting employees to make responsible decisions within stated guidelines.

So, depending on your company needs, here’s the policy I’d recommend as part of your overall travel policy. (You have a whole lot of additional decisions for a comprehensive policy.)

And, oh, by the way, if you only have a couple of employees who travel? Ignore all of this HR thinking and decision making. Duh! Managers can make time accounting decisions on a case-by-case basis.

Travel to and From Company Sponsored Events:

In (company name), employees frequently travel for business. Employees attend training or professional association meetings, visit vendors and competitors, meet with customers, and attend trade shows and other customer interaction events, to name just a few examples. Because these events are often held at desirable locations, employees frequently ask to use their PTO or vacation time to extend their stay at the event location.

In these cases, the company is responsible for the cost of employee travel including planes, cabs, airport busses, and necessary conveyances from the day the employee travels to the event until the employee completes company business at the event. The employee must account for each additional week day taken off from work following the event as paid vacation time, PTO time, or unpaid leave with management permission.

All costs incurred by the employee, or travel companions, for travel, food, lodging, transportation, and so forth, while taking time off, must be paid by the employee. The portion of the plane ticket, purchased by the company for the return of the employee after attendance at the event, or accounted for mileage, normally paid for the employee’s return by the company, may be used for the employee’s return home.

The company will pay no additional expenses. The employee must account for each day taken off following the company sponsored event.

Yes, this a long answer to the employee's question about using vacation time to extend his company event travel. But, it's a good example of all of the factors that HR must consider in HR thinking and decision making. It's not fun for HR, but it's necessary HR thinking and decision making to satisfy the needs of the five company stakeholders.

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