NZ employment relations advisor reveals wildest HR calls from employers

Woman shouting at men with phone - stock photo - with screenshots of HR questions overlaid on top
"My employee is a bit of a downer; can I terminate them for not being happy at work?" Photo credit: Photo illustration - Newshub; Image - Getty Images

For many of us, human resources is a department somewhat shrouded in mystery: a behind-the-scenes player who ideally, you have as little to do with as possible once settled into a professional role. 

But aside from hiring and firing, HR is also fielding some wild workplace conundrums - like whether or not it's appropriate to fire an employee for being a "bit of a downer", for example.

To dish the dirt on the drama HR sees BTS, Employsure - one of New Zealand's largest external employment relations advisors - has shared with Newshub a list of the most chaotic calls they've received from Kiwi businesses. And to help clear up the often murky waters of employment matters, Employsure New Zealand's associate director of operations, Laurence McLean, has also given his advice for the top five wackiest workplace dilemmas. Buckle up.  

Question #1: "Can I pay my workers half in cash and half in food, if I can prove that the value of the food is of equal value? I can attach the food pricing to their payslip if they ask for it." 

Advice: "No, not at all! Employers absolutely cannot do this. Times might be tough right now for businesses, but that doesn't mean they can underpay their staff. They must pay their full agreed wages as laid out in the contract of employment. It's worth noting that paying less than minimum wage can and often will result in successful claims against the employer, resulting in fines and reputational damage. If employers want to genuinely help their staff by providing food, then that's great but it should be in addition to and not at the expense of, their full contractual pay." 

Question #2: "We fundraised for our employee's cancer treatment, however, we found Facebook photos of her holidaying in Thailand when she was on sick leave to receive 'treatment'. Can I fire her?" 

Advice: "This is certainly a red flag! But still, it's important not to jump to conclusions. Did the employee undergo cancer treatment in Thailand? Employers must carry out a full investigation to find out all the facts before deciding on their next steps. If it appears that the employer has indeed been bamboozled, then this would amount to theft and should be reported to the police. There's also the matter of falsifying reasons for sick leave which could amount to serious misconduct and, potentially, dismissal." 

Question #3: "My employee has called in sick because his cat is sick, and the vet has given him a medical certificate for the cat." 

Advice: "There is no statutory entitlement for time off, paid or otherwise, on compassionate or bereavement grounds for pets. However, a situation like this is down to the employer's discretion. For many of us, pets are an extension of our family, and any serious illness or loss will be felt deeply. Employers may want to consider allowing temporary flexible work arrangement if their employee needs to care for a pet. Other options could be swapping shifts with a colleague or allowing them to take unpaid leave for a specified period. Again, this is entirely discretionary." 

Woman shouting at men with phone - stock photo
To dish the dirt on the drama HR sees BTS, Employsure has shared with Newshub a list of the most chaotic calls they've received from Kiwi businesses. Photo credit: Getty Images

Question #4: "Can I issue my staff with a warning letter for wearing the same perfume?" 

Advice: "I can appreciate the annoyance when someone has the same scent. However, it doesn't warrant a warning letter! Employers can only issue warnings when an employee's conduct or performance falls below what is expected, and wearing the same scent does not fall into either of these categories. Instead, put it down to the fact that your employee shares your own great taste and have a laugh about it!" 

Question #5: "My employee is a bit of a downer; can I terminate them for not being happy at work?" 

Advice: "Being 'a bit of a downer' is no reason to terminate a staff member. Instead, employers should look for reasons why their staff is unhappy. Especially, in the current economic climate, employers should approach this with sensitivity. Assuring their staff that their wellbeing is of paramount importance is the first thing they should communicate. Secondly, try to find out the reasons behind their unhappiness, but do it without breaching their privacy and confidentiality. If after talking through these issues, employers can look at reasonable adjustments that can be made around their work or schedule. And employers should always remember to remind staff of external support offered via their Employee Assistance Programme." 

Honourable mentions

  • Do I have to pay the security guard dog wages? 
  • Can you ask the Government to change the public holidays? 
  • My client is in witness protection. Can I stop paying them? 
  • I received a complaint about one of my staff stripping naked at a hotel swimming pool, while wearing company uniform. Can I fire him? 
  • As a reward for not taking sick leave all year, can I pay out the balance to each employee as a Christmas bonus? 
  • I need guidance on handling a grievance an employee made a complaint against me as they didn't appreciate me getting my hair done during the day.
  • I have received a report confirming that my employee is medically unfit to work. Can I keep him working anyway? 
  • I am looking to sell my parrot; would you be interested in buying it? 
  • Can I fire one of my apprentices because he cut the tip of his finger using my tools?
  • My employee is using excessive sick leave, what can I do to limit this? 
  • Is there a maximum I can pay my employees?