Some HR horror stories and their fixes

Putting out fires requires advance preparation and a cool head.

How many of you have been in situations where you start the conversation with, “You won’t believe this...”

Well, in this month’s article, I would like to share with you three stories that you won’t believe.

As you may already know, I have been in restaurant and hotel human resources for more than 20 years, and I’ve seen it all. Below, I’m sharing some of my stories in the hopes that I can help others.

(Please note: real names, hotel, and restaurant locations have been left out to protect identities.)

Recruiting: you won’t believe this...

It was a hot summer day in New York City. I was a junior HR professional conducting an interview for a restaurant manager. I was down to my last two back-to-back interviews, with both candidates sitting in the waiting area.

I am a huge advocate for candidate experience. I believe it is important to ensure that you are providing a positive and memorable experience for your candidate. (Remember: people share their experiences with their friends, review websites like Glassdoor, and their social media followers.)

I completed the welcome and handed the one candidate a clipboard so he could fill out the application. (Yes, I said clipboard and application―it was a long time ago and the wonderful technology we have today wasn’t available back then.)

The candidate proceeded to fill out the application while I went back in to my office to prepare for the interview. About five minutes later, I heard loud music playing. (I have to admit, it had some good bass.) I walked out of my office to the waiting area, only to find one of the candidates with his shoes and socks off, and a mini stereo system set up.

My first instinct was to jump in and get my dance on―but that would be inappropriate.

I can only assume that he took his shoes and socks off because he was extremely hot. I asked him to put his shoes back on. His response? “I’m trying to set the atmosphere, so I’m ready for my interview.”

I explained to him that it was not appropriate and, unfortunately, we would not be moving forward in the interview process. As I am sure you could imagine, he was not happy and refused to leave, forcing me to call security to have him escorted out.

The fix:

In these types of situations, it is important to stay calm and ensure that you treat the person with dignity. You never know how fast these situations can go south. Be sure to reach out for assistance and to take a moment to think through your response.

Progressive discipline matter: You won’t believe this...

I had an employee at a hotel who was a poor performer. We’ve have all dealt with the “Poor Performer,” but this situation was different because he refused to accept that he was a poor performer.

As you know, it is important to ensure you follow your progressive discipline policy. This gentleman was coached, counseled, and managed throughout the entire process. Finally, he was put on a performance improvement plan, or PIP. Unfortunately, his behavior and performance did not change. Not only that, he was also a very vocal employee who appeared to have some aggression issues.

The day came when we made the decision based on his choice not to correct his behavior or performance that it was time to sever the employment relationship. We were concerned that this situation would escalate… and escalate it did. The manager of the department had asked me to sit in on his termination. Normally as an HR professional you don’t sit in on terminations unless they are egregious or if you have a concern it may escalate. This method allows you to remain unbiased or give the perception of being so.

With the concern that this situation would escalate, we had a hotel security officer situated outside the HR office. We were extremely detailed in all the steps: we reviewed the file, had all pertinent documents ready, and made sure that we were also prepared to hear mitigating circumstances that we may not know about.

As we began to go through the details and talk to this employee, we could see the anger begin to grow in his behavior. The moment we shared with him that he was terminated, he jumped up and used both of his hands to clear everything off my desk. With one swipe, from my left to the right, he cleared my desk―computer and all.

He began to scream that we were horrible people and this was all our fault. Fortunately, we had the security officer outside, who immediately came in and subdued the employee, who then began to lunge toward me. At that point the employee calmed down and the security officer walked him out of the building.

Fortunately, this situation ended with no one harmed―except for my computer.

The fix:

The important thing to remember here is to remain calm and make sure you are prepared. Trust your instinct and know the facts. As I mentioned earlier, this employee had a history of aggressive behavior, so we were prepared.

Payroll pay period: You won’t believe this...

We had over one hundred employees who did not get paid!

As employees, the last thing any of us ever wants to hear is, “Sorry, but we don’t have a check for you.” If you have ever been in this situation you know how daunting it is. Paying our employees and ensuring they’re taken care of is our number one priority. After all, they are our internal customer.

On a cold winter day, we had just opened this particular operation and we were running the very first payroll. (I was not at the location as I was traveling for work.) I was in the middle of interviewing a senior candidate for another location for the restaurant group and felt my phone vibrating in my pocket nonstop. I realized that something was wrong, reached into my pocket, and saw that I had about 20 missed calls from members of my HR team, payroll, and ownership. I immediately realized something was very wrong and responded to the calls, only to learn that that over 100 people were not paid, and that we had a mob of upset employees.

The fix:

If any of you have ever been in this situation, you know how unnerving it can be. It was extremely difficult for the team to not only face all these upset employees, but to also not completely understand how this happened.

It turns out that it was a technical issue between our applicant tracking system and our payroll system. We had just rolled out a new applicant tracking system, and there were issues that had not been addressed during the implementation.

We definitely learned a few things from this situation:

  • Always make sure that you follow a detailed implementation process
  • Ensure you follow through on a pre-implementation process.
  • Check both sides and make sure the data is transferring.
  • Complete in-depth testing of your system and the payroll system, just to make sure that everything is functioning correctly.
  • Lastly, check any small details, just to make sure that your ATS is running exactly how you want it to.

These are just a few stories to share the challenges I have faced over the years. There are a few lessons to learn from all of these situations.

The most important thing to remember is this: Always remain calm. This will allow you to think through the situation and come up with the best plan to resolve it.

Be sure to be respectful in whatever the situation is. Remember that you are dealing with people, and they are the your most valuable asset.

Keeping these steps in mind will help you avoid having a story that begins with “You won’t believe this...”


Cleo Clarke is the global vice president of human resources strategy and development at Harri. Cleo is a senior human resource professional and has held an executive role in the hospitality industry for more than 15 years.

Cleo Clarke


Harri’s next-generation Workforce OS provides hospitality businesses with the management tools and strategic insights necessary to make real-time impact on revenue growth, profit margins, and risk mitigation. With Harri’s human capital management and workforce resource planning suites, hiring managers can source and hire top talent using media-rich profiles and streamlined tools, all while reducing costs and saving time. To date, more than 3,000,000 applications have been submitted to 53,000 jobs posted on Harri while supporting more than 400,000 members and 8,300 employers spanning the U.S. and U.K. markets. For more information, visit