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Awkward subjects need open discussion



There are some subjects that still seem to be taboo in the workplace, well maybe not taboo but which cause a sense of awkwardness.  One of these became the subject of a minor “exchange of words yesterday” in the twittersphere.  It started when I was asked the following question,

“Would it be bad form/illegal, to track the menstrual cycle of female staff, to anticipate when they’re likely to be off sick?”

Followed by,

“Would it then be bad form to book regular temp cover for every 4th week?”

Before you ask, it was raised by a man and yes I too am a man.  The response from others, however, was in my mind a little hysterical (those that know your Greek – no pun intended!) And because 140 characters is no way to deal with a subject like this, I (maybe unwisely) want to tackle the subject here.

First of all, I think the questions being asked weren’t really the ones that wanted to be answered.  I think instead the question should have been, “How would you manage an employee that repeatedly took time off and gave the reason that it was related to menstruation?”

Sack them.

Ok, well obviously you need to follow a due process of counselling, warnings etc. etc. But unless the causes are related to a disability (and as far as I am aware the menstrual cycle is not classified as such) then time off for absence, is time off for absence; regardless of the cause.  It is up to the woman to seek medical support and to find a solution to the symptoms that are making her unable to work, or alternatively to take annual leave. Sure be supportive in the process, but ultimately the contract of employment says you come to work and we pay you for that time.

At the heart of the matter is the fact that we blokes are uncomfortable talking about this whole area.  From the moment at school when they take the girls aside to talk to them and create a realm of secrecy on the subject, to the group of female workers who when you approach stop the conversation and tell you they’re talking about “women’s things”.  No these aren’t stereotypes they both happened to me, the latter on a regular basis.

So when these situations crop up, we tend not to know how to deal with them, fearing that we will be seen as insensitive or misogynistic. And instead we probably make more gaffs than we would have done if we had tackled the issues head on.  But what we need to do is bring some clarity and education to the party, to understand different views and experiences and not make discussion verboten.

At the end of the day we are looking for equality in the workplace and that means treating all people equally and with dignity.

23 Comments leave one →
  1. 10/07/2010 08:58

    This is very interesting, I agree with the author’s comments – it is absence, that’s it. If a woman is racking up days/points each month then warnings, OH etc are the right thing to do.

    In this day and age with the medical assistance that is out there for genuine menstrual problems, there should be no need to be treading on egg shells due to “women’s problems”, what about men with prostate issues – should they too be able to cite “men’s problems”…. This is silly.

    Before we all launch into another war of the sexes, I would just add a small word of caution, but it applies to “women’s problems” and equally to “men’s problems”, in a small percentage of cases menstrual conditions, as I’m sure are conditions unique to men (sorry, don’t have much experience here) are considered chronic, debilitating and while prolonged medical searches go on for an intervention they do affect a persons ability to carry out normal day to day tasks, continue for more than a year, and so do start to feature in the realms of the DDA, albeit temporarily while Doctor’s come up with an appropriate course of treatment or at least condition management.

    That said, I can see how in the workplace this is emotive and just feels not fair. Nearly 20 years ago in my first job there was a girl who should’ve been sacked for poor attendance, she was always off once a month, and spent another two weeks in the office crying inexplicably. It’s inexcusable – she should’ve got help, not tortured us all with her problems that incidentally no one could talk to her about because everyone was frankly squeamish.

    As far as I know she may still even be there – outrageous!

    (PS, I’m female!)

  2. 10/07/2010 12:20

    Hey there Mr HRD,

    In this day and age there are many solutions to the dilemma of “women’s problems” i.e. naprogesic, the pill, nurofen, heat bags etc… I don’t think anyone would legitimately need that time of month off unless they had a serious problem.

    Every now and again there will be the odd person who will have an abnormal problem and then that should be treated like every other illness i.e they should stay in communication with you and supply Dr’s certs where relevant. I think it should be treated like any other absenteeism case–> i.e. have they taken excessive sick leave and is it a serious problem for the business?

    On the other hand perhaps I need more detail? For instance, are you running an accounts team where everyone gets their period at the months end?

  3. 10/07/2010 12:48

    I’ll come clean straightaway – It was I who asked the question. I don’t think I’m undiplomatic, but I do have a tendency to asked questions that other s feel are taboo. Some of the response yesterday on Twitter was outraged that I should even ask such a question, and clearly I was a sexist pig for having done so.

    There was a specific reason for asking this particular question of an experienced HR Director, who would know the issues involved. I had a staff member a few years ago who regularly had to be absent from for work, often for a whole week. She suffered from endimetriosis, which meant that she had severe debilitating pain every four weeks, and unavoidable work absence. She also had a period of absence for an operation. Other female staff members had pretty reliable cycles, when they would have at least a day or two off work.

    I grew up with three sisters, so have no problem in discussion these matters, but the women in question did. I would seek to do so in a matter of fact manner, and look to find ways that the absence had little effect on their work. As recruitment consultants, they were targeted on fee generation, and this was clearly made more difficult.

    A fellow director did keep a discreet note of absences, and would therefore know in advance when to expect them.

    On the subject of sensitive issues generally, I find it is always best to speak about them directly, if discreetly, as early on as possible. This allows both sides to be open, and prevents an unspoken issue building up to become a serious problem.

  4. Corporate Daycare permalink
    10/07/2010 12:50

    Be careful what you ask for – while it is absenteeism – do you REALLY want that person at work on that day. (Of course, I mean this on an occasional, and not a 4-week cycle basis.)

    In an interesting twist – I worked with a man who said that if his female co-worker was not allowed to take time off during that “time of the month”, could he as she was a real bitch to work with when she came in.

    You are absolutely right though – it may be something we have to go through, but it should not be an excuse. Except for getting out of doing laps in high school gym class.

  5. Ginger Gill permalink
    10/07/2010 13:10

    Oh my good god! Callin’ all ladies out there…..why do we do this to ourselves?

    Now, before my rant commences let me be clear that I acknowledge there are a very samll minority of women who do suffer debilitating periods, and where, when investigated, it is shown that their hormone levels are so altered during menstruation that their moods can indeed be altered as a result of this…..

    For all those others out there who cry ‘it’s my time of the month’ are you really doing yourself any favours?

    Now, I menstruate every month – no suprise there – but I have tracked my emotions and emotional responses over a number of months (in the name of research of course, I ain’t just weird) and have found that at all times of the month, if someone I am working with is being a prick, I’ll think he’s a prink, if someone does something to upset me, I’ll be upset, if someone acts like a total bubafuck and annoys me, I’ll be annoyed… getting the picture? So, my moods, if tracked, would show that I suffer from PMS all month! Now that’s clever…..

    On the same vein I asked my ever suffering husband and a couple of close male friends / colleagues to do the same – guess what? They suffer form PMS all month too!

    So, ladies, lets not demean ourselves by stating that our emotional responses are outwith our control because we happen to be menstruating………our behaviours and emotions are not driven by this and we feckin’ know it! I would hate any male (or female for that matter) colleague of mine to dismiss my emotions / behaviour etc simply because its ‘that time of the month’ – it would belittle me and invalidate my response.

    Rant over – as you were………..and I know I’ve digressed but it’s my time of the month and surely that’s my prerogative xxxx

  6. 10/07/2010 14:04

    You mean there really are more than a handful of women who call in sick when they have their periods? I didn’t even know anyone did that, but Stephen cite examples. There are drugs for these things, you know. I used to throw up from cramps, but I never missed work.* And then I went on the pill and voila! problem solved.

    * I missed two days of work in my corporate career and one of them was because I had my one and only hangover.

  7. 10/07/2010 16:32

    If I’m perfectly honest, I think that a big reason why discussing such (allegedly) sensitive matters makes men uncomfortable is women’s reaction. A lot of women (for reasons unknown to me) are sensitive to the topic. A lot of women are also sensitive to being accused of being hormonal and sometimes (yes, it’s true, IMO) this is because they are actually hormonal. And so in some respects I think the reaction of the male population is only natural. You don’t understand it. You can’t be expected to understand it. And half the time, when you try and find out more about it, you are shot down.

    On the flip side, and in defense of women, we have to put up with quite a lot of jibes about whether or not our mood might be being dictated by hormones or menstrual cycle. I once heard a Financial Director shout at a female employee (who he’d made cry) “Are you on your f*cking period or something?! Come back and talk to me when you are rational!”

    (Pretty much) all women menstruate. For the majority of us, it does not impact our lives in any meaningful or debilitating way, but for some it does. And for those for whom it is a genuine problem then it absolutely should be discussed and treated as one. Like any other ongoing illness might.

  8. 10/07/2010 17:23

    This reminds me of a ‘joke’ I once heard:

    What’s the definition of PMS?

    Once a month women behave the way men do all of the time!

    OK, on a more serious note, as others have already said, there will be a minority who have genuine problems with PMS – and an even smaller group that can’t get help for it. So as Ginger Gill has said, ladies who use the ‘excuse’ of PMS are not doing themselves any favours.

    However, nor do the men who have ‘flu’ on a Monday, following their teams big win, or loss, over the weekend.

    As HRD said right at the start ‘the contract of employment says you come to work and we pay you for that time’. All employees with a poor sick record should be dealt with – yes sympathetically where that is appropriate, and with reasonable adjustments when linked to a disability.

    If I had a fiver for every time a manager has wanted to avoid the issue because they are sure the employee’s absence has been genuine – I would not be blogging here!

  9. Rob Jones permalink
    10/08/2010 12:25

    I’m firstly delighted that it’s being talked about (and with some considerable passion it seems) because I for one do fear the reaction despite being very comfortable discussing it…

    I think following his Doyle evisceration Stephen maybe considering his phrasing in future but at least he put the elephant on the table.

    Finally, I am most pleased that when they took the girls to one to talk about “women’s things” at school they taught us about lighting BBQs, map reading and ability to sit on a sofa without a cushion

  10. Rhiannon Doyle permalink
    10/08/2010 12:46

    Ermmm… Have I missed something? Am I to ditch my dungarees, grow my hair and burn my copy of the Female Eunuch? No? Phew… for a moment there I thought an almighty sidestep of the actual issue had occurred… Oh, hang on…

    Seriously, I’m glad that we’ve been given the opportunity to discuss periods. It’s
    encouraging even, to clarify that sensible equality has to be at the heart of policies surrounding any absence from the workplace. Well done HR bods, common sense has prevailed.

    Great, so that’s sorted then. What shall we talk about now?

    Ah yes, the real point.

    “Would it be bad form/illegal, to track the menstrual cycle of female staff, to anticipate when they’re likely to be off sick?”

    Even copying and pasting that question made me die a little inside. So, hey, I’m no legal eagle, but I’d say, yes, yes, it would be bad form. Jolly bad form indeed.

    I don’t really need to explain how denigrating and belittling it is to reduce women to crazed balls of hormones… do I?

    Was it an acceptable question to ask? Sure, if you:
    a) Believe this to be 1952
    b) Are living on the set of Mad Men
    c) Also consider it acceptable to have page 3 calendars up in your office

    Now, I’m a reasonable person, I’m perfectly prepared to believe that Mr O’Donnell got his words mixed up, didn’t say what he was actually thinking, meant it in the exact way The HRD chose to pick up on it…

    However, when asked for clarification over why I find the concept so utterly offensive, I, like any dutiful feminist, delivered the stock phrases of “patronising paternalism” and causing “a serious impediment to the continued progression of women’s employment”. Apparently, these are not
    considered ‘serious’ answers. Back in your box Mary Wollstonecraft…

    A terrific retort followed…”Others have flown off the handle – ironically”.
    Bam, bosh, kersplatt… Try to undermine me with a sexist comment. Genius.

    S’ok, I get it. This is how it is. Overtly or implicitly, sexism is part of the way the world works. In workplaces, classrooms and social settings, our daughters, sisters, wives and mothers, observe men demeaning women and facing few, if any, consequences. From a young age I have developed coping strategies. I mostly ignore offensive behaviour, physically move away, avoid circumstances in which I’ll likely encounter it, or try to defuse the situation by placing myself in the role of the aggressor thus proving I can take a joke. I have height on my side and I have become adept at a withering look…

    Criticised for ‘ranting’ on Twitter, I would continue to insist quietly but firmly, that the remarks are the problem; my reaction to them is not.

    Lovely blog comment readers, plead ignorance, blame inarticulacy, dress it up however you want… If you think that women are less capable than men, and you nod to yourself sagely whenever any ‘research’ appears to confirm your prejudices, you are a sexist. By definition. You’re making value judgments about someone’s abilities based on their gender. You’re a sexist. Suck it up. Own it. You horrible sexist.

    Am I offended by the concept of tracking female employees menstrual cycles? Fucking right I am. Moreover, I am ENRAGED that this practice is actually happening.

    But I haven’t piped up in order to pick on Mr O’Donnell. He’s clearly not sexist, he grew up with three sisters…

    No, instead, I direct it to all the man boys who have called me a lesbian because I wouldn’t go out with them, called me frigid because I wouldn’t sleep with them, stared at my breasts whilst I’m talking, teased me for being feminist, criticised me for speaking up, accused me of being overly sensitive and having no sense of humour…

    And mostly, I direct it towards the cock at the rugby last week who berated me for being late back to my seat.

    As for being deemed ‘hysterical’… dear HRD, you disappoint me….

    • 10/09/2010 18:21

      I couldn’t agree more with all of your points, Rhiannon.

      For what it’s worth I COULD be sexist, but as it happens, I’m not. I’m actually very pro-feminist. I’m in favour of equality of all areas of employment, and believe that women are still getting a very raw deal indeed. I do think women should be far more assertive especially in the issue of salary equality, and equality of opportunity.

      I was deliberately provocative in the wording of my original question. I expected the odd knee-jerk reaction, but was hoping someone (namely the The HRD) would begin the serious discussion on the subject that we see here on this page. I don’t think anyone should be outraged when a serious question is asked on a serious subject.

      That’s because even where we strive for equality, there are practical considerations that will always be a factor for the sexes, including healthcare, childcare, lifestyle etc.

      PS. The careers and status of the women working for me were unaffected by their menstrual cycles. Their ability to hit targets was the only factor.

      • Rhiannon Doyle permalink
        10/14/2010 15:48

        I’m all for the odd bit of deliberate provocation. However, I do still fail to see why you would choose to dress the true question up like a hooker on a street corner.

        How would one go about enforcing this practice I wonder? Perhaps it would be best to ask at interview stage.. Or maybe put it on the application form between date of birth and marital status? Now there’s a thought… Find out if she’s single and at her most fertile and you can pre-empt her maternity leave too!

        My point is that generalisations are unacceptable when dealing with serious issues. Employers must at least consider that ending gender discrimination in all forms is in their own best interests, because anyone who works in a hostile environment simply cannot contribute to a company’s goals as effectively as they might otherwise.

        Implicit in our ‘exchange’ is the idea that many middle-class, liberal men appear to believe that we have moved beyond sexism. Maybe that’s why both you and The HRD chose to ignore or devalue my comments with all the eloquence of spurned teenage boys who glibly say, “oooh time of the month is it?!”

        If you’d have spoken to me like that to me in the pub, I’d think you were both nobs. If you’d done at work… I would have given you some operational feedback.

        Now please do excuse me, I’ve got socks to darn, naked female mud wrestling to practice and my period is due so I must go and organise some cover…

  11. BJH permalink
    10/08/2010 13:40

    I’m not going to enter the debate as such … however in the past I have tracked “patterns” of absence eg: the people who are always ill when they arrive back from a holiday, the “Monday-morning’itis” brigade and post-sport weekend sprained ankles. Is this really so different?

    In one case, which proved very genuine, the employee was very grateful that I’d recognised a pattern, was able to discuss it with their GP and got a good diagnosis. Turned out this person couldn’t cope with the lack of stress at weekends and holidays which lead to migraines.

    I’m female (in case anyone thinks that’s relevant) and have spoken to female employees in the past about repeated absences relating to their periods. In every case they either sought help and solved the problem – or managed to resolve it themselves(!)

    I don’t think anyone should shy away from tackling an issue just because of someone’s sex or because of their condition. If you pay someone to be at work, and they cannot be there, they have a duty to explain themselves as openly as possible and the employer has a duty to tackle it as sensitively as possible.

  12. No PMT required permalink
    10/13/2010 16:02

    I’m disappointed in you, Mr. HRD. As a newbie to the working world, I follow your blog with keen interest and was shocked to read your post.
    Yes, I’m aware the shock factor was probably a ploy to get people talking, but this is definitely one subject that men should steer well clear of. Not because it’s a social taboo (I’m all over breaking those) but because you don’t have a clue what you’re talking about.
    At the risk of sounding like a radical feminist, until you’ve bled from your vagina for five days, perhaps you shouldn’t pass judgement on a physical sensation you couldn’t even imagine. Perhaps you should experiment by having a female colleague kick you in the nuts during her time of the month to see if you would also like some time off work?
    I once had a boyfriend who complained about the fact that once a month I was bedridden for a day. He uttered the dreaded words “I know women who deal with it”. Good for him – I know women without any diagnosed medical condition who can’t move during their periods for fear of vomiting and no non-lethal amount of painkiller will do any good.
    Sack them? Go ahead – cite PMT-related absences as your reason as well, it would be hilarious to see a sympathetic female tribunal leader or judge rip the lid off your sad little fantasy world in which women with a condition you know nothing about.
    Stupid topic to even bring up – suck it up and let premenstrual women work from home if they wish, it’s the way forward.

    • No PMT required permalink
      10/13/2010 16:02

      That was meant to read “off your sad little fantasy world in which women with a condition you know nothing about are somehow a liability.”

      • 10/13/2010 18:52

        Are you saying an employer should be obliged to give an unquestioning free pass, but still never ever broach the subject?

  13. No PMT required permalink
    10/14/2010 07:27

    I kind of value trust in employees rather than treating them like naughty school children, which this post seems to imply. If someone says they’re sick, then they’re sick. End of.

    Perhaps I’ll become more cynical as time goes on but for the time being I’m happy to place my trust in others and treat them with respect, not question the validity of their illness on the basis that I objectively don’t think their condition is valid. (And terrible period pains count as illness, as I outlined in my last post)

    • 10/14/2010 10:55

      I suspect that all HR people start out in their careers wanting to give people the benefit of the doubt – but, like the rest of us, I suspect that you too will meet enough employees who want to con their employers to get just a tad cynical as the years go on.

      To me this post was about are there taboo areas – and the answer should be NO. Managers (supported by HR) have every right – even a duty, to question ANY absence by any employee. This is to ensure that the individual gets any support required, as well as making it clear that frequent absences may lead to dismissals.

      You are, of course, right that in the absence of any direct evidence to the contrary, that when someone says they are sick, they are sick. However, that does not mean an employer has to put up with that state of affairs for ever. If an employee cannot meet the terms of their contract (subject to reasonable adjustments if their absences relate to a disability) they have to go.

      One of the biggest demotivators in organisations is seeing other employees ‘getting away’ with a poor attendance record, or poor performance, or bad attitude etc. HR people should be advising line managers of their options – and the dangers of non-action.

  14. No PMT required permalink
    10/14/2010 11:55

    My main problem with this is it all sounds like something you would say about a child playing truant: “getting away with” skipping work and having a bad attitude! When did the workplace become a schoolyard?

    Can the powers that be not just trust employees to do a good job and be honest with their bosses about their absences? In extreme cases of frequent absence I can see that a conversation needs to be had but singling out women and questioning the severity of their periods is just offensive!!

  15. 10/14/2010 19:33

    OK, so I’m going to take this one stage by stage.

    First of all, thank you for all your comments. As I said in the title and in the post, we need open discussion on these issues. So without exception I thank you.

    I want to come back to a couple of points that have been made, however, because I think it is only fair and because at the end of the day it is my blog.

    1) Stephen never said that he monitored any female’s cycle, nor did he say that he condoned the behaviour. Nor did I. That is a fact. Look at any of the tweets, look at any of the comments and you will see that to be true. To suggest that either he or I did is incorrect.

    2) Nowhere in this post or in any of my posts have I ever stated that women are less capable than men. To suggest that I have in incorrect and frankly quite offensive.

    3) I do not believe that individual attacks or personal comments are in anyway helpful to a discussion on this topic. I have not referred to anyone by name in the post. If they chose to unveil themselves, that was their concern not mine.

    4) I find the argument that if you don’t experience it, you can’t comment on it naive in the extreme. So I can’t talk about poverty unless I am poor? I can’t talk about racism unless I am from an ethnic minority? I can’t talk about animal rights unless I’m an animal? Please. Think it through.

    As it stands, I’m talking about absence in the workplace. As an HR Director with the best part of two decades worth of experience, I think I’m qualified to have a view point on the issues. As are all of you.

    5) I believe females and males are all intelligent, rational people. For example, I would imagine the Chair of a Tribunal would make a decision on a case based on facts, legal arguments and precedent. Not their gender.

    6) I believe in equality. That means treating people equally. In order to do that you do need to have some rules that we all abide by. That is what living in a society involves. And I believe in applying them consistently regardless of age, gender, ethnic origin, disability or any other element of diversity unless the law stipulates otherwise. I believe that is what the equality movement has fought for, not for special treatment.

    Go back and read the post without the red mist covering your eyes and see what there is there to disagree with?

    “….what we need to do is bring some clarity and education to the party, to understand different views and experiences and not make discussion verboten”.

    I stand by that, I stand by open discussion and freedom of speech. That is why I have allowed people to post comments without providing a legitimate email address. That is why despite considering closing comments for the first time ever on this blog, I have decided to leave them open.

    I’m not afraid to have an open and honest discussion, I’m not afraid to touch on any topic and I will continue to do so. Because despite the stereotypes, I don’t think men are thick un-emotional idiots, nor do I think women are illogical air brains. I think we all have a valid viewpoint and a right to put our opinions forward, whether others agree with them or not.


  16. fernandomando permalink
    10/14/2010 20:36

    Now, put the kettle on dear and make me a cup of tea.

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