Archive | January 2014

Workplace Q&A: Part 9

Q: My boss is a bully. What should I do?

“My boss is a bully. He hones in on the most vulnerable people in our group and then picks on them. So far I’ve escaped his attention because nothing really noteworthy has happened in my life. Still, I’m totally stressed out. If I get sick, he’ll make fun of my illness. If I have a problem with my child, he’ll tell me I’m a bad mother. If there’s a death in my family, he’ll say I’m next in line for the grave. Whatever happens, he’ll tease me about it and throw it back in my face. I’m not sure I’ll be able to take his abuse. What should I do?”

A: Look for another job.

If you stay, it can only end up badly. Everyone will eventually get sick, have family difficulties, or encounter problems with his appearance, and you’re right that you are no exception. When that happens, you won’t need the extra stress of being teased and bullied about it.

Do not share with anyone your plans to do a job search. When you are interviewing for your new job, do not talk about your bad boss. Focus on the benefits of the new position and why it is a perfect opportunity for you.

Q: Can my co-worker use company-licensed software for his own personal business?

“My co-worker is running software that has been licensed by our company. He uses the software not only for work, but also for his own personal business projects. When I asked him about it, he said that the software license is in his name, and that there’s no extra cost to the company if he uses the software for his own business, too. Can he do this?”

A: No.

Your company may have put your co-worker’s name on the licensing agreement as an authorized user. But that does not mean he can use the software for his own business. In fact, he is probably violating the terms of the licensing agreement as well as your company’s own internal policy on the use of corporate resources.

Workplace-Q-and-A

Q: My boss found some embarrassing things in my desk. What should I do?

“I am a secretary. Last week, when I was absent from work, my manager needed some forms to fill out for reimbursement. So he went through my desk looking for them. Although I had nothing illegal in my desk, there were some personal things that were, well, embarrassing. Now I feel really uncomfortable interacting with my manager. What can I do?”

A: Try to forget about what happened.

I’m assuming that your manager in fact had a timely need for the reimbursement forms and that he knew you kept them in your desk. In that case, he is allowed to look for them. As a general rule, any property in the office is fair game for a search if there is a business reason. Your boss’ search does not seem like an abuse of management power.

I suggest that you try to forget what happened. My guess is that your manager has already forgotten about it. There are very few things that most people haven’t seen at one time or another.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q & A: Part 8

Q: Do I have to tell my manager that I’m pregnant?

“Do I have to inform my manager that I am pregnant? I work in a busy division where managers like to plan the work schedule months in advance.”

A: No.

You don’t have to tell your manager before you’re ready to tell the whole world.

When you do tell him, it will be in your interest to offer suggestions for coverage and to advise him of your plans for maternity leave and your expectations upon returning to work. If you intend to ask for a flex schedule or part-time work, you need to figure out the details now rather than later. If your company is inflexible and makes demands that will be incompatible with your new responsibilities as a mother, you need to plan now your strategy for finding another job.

This may be one of those situations where giving your manager a heads up will signal your interest and dedication to the company, even though you’re not obligated to give him information about your private life.

Q: My service dog calms me down when I get panic attacks. Can I bring the dog to work?

“I have a service dog because I get frequent panic attacks. When I have chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations, and a feeling like I’m not in my own body, my service dog is able to calm me down. I would like to bring the dog to work. My manager says the company has a ‘no pets allowed’ policy, and that the only exception is a seeing-eye dog. Can I bring the dog to work?”

A: Yes.

The company cannot bar service dogs from accompanying employees to work. However, your employer is allowed to establish reasonable rules, for example, that you must keep the dog with you and that the dog remain relatively quiet.

Permitting a service dog to accompany an employee would be considered a reasonable accommodation under the Americans for Disabilities Act (ADA). It’s difficult to see how the dog could present an undo hardship to your company. Claiming that other employees or customers don’t like dogs would not be enough to bar your dog from the workplace.

The dog should have some type identification showing it is a service dog, but you do not have to present any special certification materials to the employer. You should spend a little time educating your co-workers about what they can and cannot do in relation to the dog, since the natural inclination of most people is to pet the dog or give the dog a treat.

Workplace-Q-and-A

Q: Do I have to report an employee who accessed child pornography on his computer?

“One of my direct employees accessed child porn on his computer. My guess is that he stumbled upon it. But the fact is that I don’t really know how it happened. He is an extremely good worker. I would like to forget the whole thing. Do I have to report him?”

A: Yes.

You should report this situation to corporate security and let them do an investigation. Viewing child pornography is very different from viewing adult porn and can lead to criminal charges. As you indicated, you don’t really know what is going on. And you certainly don’t want to be accused of covering up someone else’s accessing and viewing child pornography.

The fact that this employee is a good worker is unlikely to help him keep his job if, in fact, he has been downloading and viewing child porn on the company computer. It is more likely that he will be terminated and his case reported to law enforcement authorities.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q & A: Part 7

Q: Can I be fired just because I got arrested?

“I was arrested for getting into a serious altercation with a guy who rammed into my car on purpose. It wasn’t on work property or on work time. In fact, it was in another state. The trial won’t take place for one year. Can I be fired just because I got arrested?”

A: In this case, yes.

Yes, you could be fired or put on unpaid leave. A company cannot fire an employee simply because he has an arrest record. But it does not have to retain an employee with an open case for a crime involving violence.

If you weren’t at fault and you have documentation to that effect – such as a police report or statements from witnesses or your lawyer – you can try to convince your employer that you aren’t at risk for further violence. It would certainly help if you have no prior police record and an absolutely spotless driving record.

Q: My co-worker has nicknamed me Giraffe. Can he get away with this?

“My name is Geoff. I’m six foot four inches tall and fairly lean. One of my co-workers calls me Giraffe. I’ve repeatedly asked him to stop, but he just laughs and continues to do it. Can he get away with this?”

A: No.

Your co-worker is engaging in a common form of workplace bullying. It is stressful to be teased on a regular basis. It interferes with your ability to get your work done. You should file a written complain with your manager, detailing the times and places that your co-worker has engaged in this name-calling, and you should list those people who have witnessed it. Your company should instruct the employee to immediately cease calling you Giraffe.

Workplace-Q-and-A

Q: Can I get my co-workers to stay home when they’re contagious?

“The other employees in my area always come to work sick. The group passes around colds and flu all winter long. My problem is that I have asthma, and every time I get a cold, I’m laid low for two weeks on antibiotics and extra asthma medicine. I realize that my company’s management frowns upon taking a day off, and my clients aren’t too happy about it either. Still, isn’t there some way I can get my co-workers to stay home when they’re contagious?”

A: No.

Employees cannot be forced to stay at home. However, your co-workers may be willing to keep their distance if you explain how hard it is for you to shake a cold and how unproductive it makes you at work.

Ask your manager if he would allow you to work at home or stagger your hours when your co-workers are sick. You are certainly entitled to keep a distance from your co-workers. And wash your hands frequently.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q & A: Part 6

Q: Now that I have become a woman, do I still have to wear men’s clothes to work?

“I am in the process of gender reassignment. Now that I look like a woman instead of a man, I have recently been wearing women’s clothes to work. This afternoon, my manager took me aside and warned me, ‘Too many of your fellow employees and too many of our clients knew you as a man. Seeing you in women’s clothes makes them uncomfortable. So, you can wear whatever you want after work. But you’ll have to come to work here in men’s clothes.’ Do I have to obey my manager and wear men’s clothes to work?”

A: No.

You are allowed to dress in a manner that is consistent with your gender identity. A business can have a dress code. It can forbid torn or soiled clothing, beachwear, or tee shirts with offensive images. For employees in client-facing positions, it can prohibit multiple visible piercings and tattoos. But it cannot dictate your identity. Your fellow employees and clients will have to get used to it.

Q: During my probationary period, can I be fired without any warning or any explanation?

“When I was hired, I was told that my new job had a 90-day probationary period. During that time, I never received any warnings or criticism of my performance. When the 90 days were almost up, I was called into my manager’s office with no advance notice and fired on the spot. The worst part was that I received no explanation. Can my manager do this?”

A: Yes.

There is no law that governs the duration or the specific conditions of a probationary period. Some probationary periods last 2 weeks, while others last 6 months. Some might provide that the employee on probation must receive a warning before termination. But in all likelihood, your probationary period permitted your company to terminate you for unsatisfactory performance within 90 days without going through any of the standard procedures in its human resources manual. And in all likelihood, you won’t be eligible for severance pay either.

However, during a probationary period, your employer cannot treat you unfairly because of your race, sex, age, national origin, disability or sexual orientation. If discrimination becomes an issue, your company may have to show that you received proper training and that you were given an opportunity to correct your deficiencies.

A company would be well advised to discontinue its use of probationary periods for new hires. It would be better instead to give all employees the same notice of deficiencies and the same opportunities for training and new assignments. That would clear the air of any possibility that the company wanted to get rid of an employee for an improper reason.

Workplace-Q-and-A

Q: Can a company make me go through four interviews, complete two preliminary job assignments and produce five references before it decides to hire me?

“I recently applied for a job as a communications officer. I had to undergo four interviews with people in different parts of the company. Then I had to complete a job assignment to demonstrate my communication skills. Then I was asked for five references. And now they want a second writing sample. Can a company require me to jump through all these hoops? What if they don’t hire me?”

A: Yes.

A company can establish whatever requirements it wants, so long as they’re connected to the job you’re applying for. In our new age of multiple applicants for each job, employers can be super-picky. They want to turn over every stone.

It’s entirely possible that you won’t get the job. It happens all the time and for a variety of reasons. The company might ultimately decide it can do without another employee. It could decide instead to hire internally. Or it could decide to hire a friend of the CEO.

In fact, the company might find your preliminary assignments to be quite valuable. It could use your work product without hiring you. That’s a risk you’ll have to take if you want to be considered for the job.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

The Vacation Time Illusion

No Vacation Time

Enormous Latitude

I know of no law that requires employers to give their employees paid vacation time. Still, most financially solvent companies do choose to grant paid vacation time to their workers, and in fact, it is now considered a regular part of employee benefit packages. Paid vacation time attracts competent workers. It can be a powerful management tool to boost morale and increase efficiency in operations.

The fact that employers routinely offer paid vacation time does not mean that it is a standardized, fixed benefit. Employers have enormous latitude in granting paid vacation to their employees. They can combine vacation and sick time into a single pool of paid leave. Or they can grant paid vacations only to full-time employees. Employers can decide how much time off they will allow. They can impose all sorts of conditions on the use of vacation time, such as how much notice an employee has to give. They can stagger employees’ vacations to ensure that someone is always on the job. In many states, an employer has no obligation to pay a departing employee for his accrued but unused vacation time.

The Big Disconnect

When you accept a job offer, your offer letter will likely specify how much paid vacation time you’ll receive. Your company’s human resources manual will spell out the rules governing vacation time. But that’s just for the record. In reality, there may be a big disconnect between what you thought you were getting and what happens in practice. In many instances, in fact, you may find that your on-the-record vacation time is an illusion, and that for all practical purposes you have no vacation time at all.

Why the Illusion?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of earned vacation days are not used. Some employees forgo vacation because they don’t have the funds to go anywhere. They figure they might as well go to work. Others are afraid that if they depart, even for a few days, their managers will realize that the company can get along just fine without them. Others internalize the idea that an employee who is “too busy” to go on vacation must be the hardest, most responsible worker. Still others know that even if they’re out of the office, their electronic devices tether them to their job.

But don’t imagine for a minute that unused vacation constitutes a voluntary gift of value from the employee to the employer. The fact is that your employer can create working conditions that give you no choice but to forfeit a benefit you thought you had. Your employer can give you so many pending assignments that there is simply no good time to suspend your work activities and get out for a week or two. Your supervisor can create an environment in which there is “so much work to do” and so little backup that your taking a vacation will make you look like the worst of the bad guys.

Does that mean employers are collectively engaged in an invidious plan to promise paid vacations and then deny them? A better explanation is that a great many companies are poorly managed. Unable to order their priorities, their managers simply bombard their employees with an excess of useless projects. Unable to make rational use of their available manpower, their managers create work schedules that keep everyone on the job while half end up sitting around doing nothing. Unable to sort out responsibilities, their managers bicker over which employee gets assigned to what project.

Three Ways Out

There are many ways to ensure that employees take the paid vacations that they are entitled to. Here are three.

The easiest method would be to mandate, as part of the company’s personnel practices, that every employee must be away from the office and disconnected from the job for two or three weeks each year. These mandatory vacations would be integrated into the work schedules for each department. This is not an unrealistic, pie-in-the-sky option. Some regulatory agencies require mandatory time off for certain registered financial agents.

Second, managers could build vacation time into every project timeline, while departments could schedule vacations in advance, just as they do for other activities in their annual work plans. These enhanced work plans will promote the rational use of manpower. They will avoid those spot shortages where employees, under the false impression that they were taking a vacation, find that they have to stick around and make up for management’s planning mistakes.

Third, companies can designate the taking of vacation as a performance goal, to be included in the evaluation not only of the employee, but also his manager. They can exact a real penalty if the goal is ignored. This is by no means a novel idea. Employers build all sorts of behavioral goals into their performance management plans.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.

Workplace Q & A: Part 5

Q: Do I have to accept my manager’s request to be a friend on Facebook?

“My manager asked me to be his friend on Facebook. This makes me uncomfortable. Am I obligated to do it?”

A: No.

The best course of action is to ignore the request. If your manager brings it up at work, think of a neutral response that won’t offend him. For example, you could say that you use Facebook only for very close friends and family. Or you could respond that you rarely access Facebook, so you’ve decided not to add any new friends. If your manager insists, you may have to change your Facebook settings so that he can see only a bare minimum of information.

Generally managers should not ask employees to be connected on any social media channel. Nor should employees ask managers to befriend them on Facebook, follow them on Twitter, or connect with them on Linked In.

The employee-manager relationship is not a relationship of equals. It’s a business relationship. Sure, you can get along with your boss. You can admire him. You can even be fond of him. But he’s not your friend.

Q: Do I have to attend my company’s diversity training?

“My company has been the target of several race discrimination suits. I was not personally accused of any misconduct, nor was I involved in the litigation in any way. The Human Resources Department has hired a consultant to do ‘diversity training’ and has mandated that everyone attend. Do I have to attend?”

A: Yes.

It’s not unreasonable for a company that has faced charges of discrimination to decide that the entire workforce could benefit from diversity training. It would be impractical even to attempt to single out those employees who are supposedly at higher risk of engaging in discrimination. And it would be stigmatizing, too.

My question to you is: Why wouldn’t you want to attend? Diversity training will teach you to see things from a different point of view. It will give you new skills that you can use inside and outside the workplace.

I can’t recall even one instance of an employee who claimed that he was harmed by diversity training. Once they’ve undergone diversity training, most employees tell how they now understand ideas that were once totally foreign to them.

Workplace-Q-and-A

Q: My co-worker’s ex-wife is harassing him. Any advice?

“I work for a big company. My co-worker’s former wife continues to harass him. She calls him and sends him offensive text messages constantly. Some of the emails that she sends him are obscene. It is interfering with his ability to get his work done. But he’s afraid to tell our supervisor because my co-worker has a messy history with this former wife. Any advice?”

A: Yes. He should contact corporate security.

Yes, he should contact corporate security. They will be able to change his telephone number at work or block certain calls. They can also block emails to his workplace email account. They can advise him how to set up the same safeguards for his personal telephone and email accounts. If your co-worker fears for his safety, your corporate security department can advise him how to apply for a restraining order or, at the very least, how to notify his local police about this woman’s actions.

You do not have a legal obligation to help your co-worker. Still, pointing him in the right direction looks like the right thing to do. You don’t have to inform your manager about the harassment your co-worker is experiencing or the advice that you’ve given him. If your manager needs to know, your corporate security officers will talk to him.

Copyright © 2013–2014 Johanna Harris

Disclaimer: This blog is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for legal advice and does not create an attorney-client relationship. This post contains numerous questions describing common recurring problems in the workplace. The circumstances described in these questions, including the names of characters and business firms, are fictitious.

About the Author: Johanna Harris has been a trial attorney with the U.S. Department of Labor and in-house labor counsel for two multinational corporations. She is currently the CEO of Hire Fire and Retire LLC. Her new book, USE PROTECTION: An Employee’s Guide to Advancement in the Workplace (i Book, Kindle, Amazon Paperback), is intended to help you learn enough about labor law and personnel practices so that you don’t get derailed from the career track you should be on.