In the Trenches: Acme treats married couple poorly

In this installment of "In the Trenches," Acme employees treat a married couple poorly. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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Polly Andrey started work at the Acme plant nine years ago. She proved herself competent and held a variety of jobs, ultimately being named the director of new-product launches. Her husband, Phil Andrey, joined the company two years ago as a maintenance technician on the plant floor. The first maintenance team hire in many years, he was somewhat younger than the typical veteran in that department. As with any job, being at the base of the totem pole has a certain downside. Phil was preferentially assigned the dirtier, less stimulating and more repetitive tasks from the stack of work orders the maintenance scheduler generated before the start of each shift.

He was philosophical about his situation. He knew he was qualified. He needed the work and he knew he’d have to pay his dues and prove his worth to remain gainfully employed. But, the nature of the work wasn’t the only difficulty that Phil had to confront. Periodically, he found anonymous handwritten notes tacked to the bulletin board at the plant employee entrance. The notes intimated that Phil was hired only through the efforts of his wife. One note even suggested that it was because of favors his wife accumulated through sexual exploits. Sometimes he found notes of a similar content on his workbench. A few of these said that Billy Doux, Phil’s supervisor, would soon fire him.

Then, he found photos of nude men tacked to a small bulletin board near his workbench. When he tried to remove them, another employee made a fuss, insisting that they be left in place. His coworkers began asking him about his relationship with Polly and someone sent him a pornographic photo of a woman with a handwritten reference to Polly.

Billy, in a rather profane manner, accused Phil of having a bad work attitude and then called a team meeting at which coworkers listed their complaints about Phil. Afterward, his coworkers either avoided him or overtly shunned him. Phil complained to Acme’s HR dept, but the company took no action on his complaint. Meanwhile, the comments and innuendo continued. Phil finally requested a two-month medical leave because of the stress he felt. Just before his leave expired, Acme sent Phil a letter informing him that he was eligible for a two-month extension, but without a guarantee of a job beyond that time. Acme demanded his response within one week. Phil interpreted the phrasing to mean that Acme either was forcing him to resign or was firing him outright. He resigned one week later.

Polly’s problems in the office started about the same time that Phil began experiencing difficulties on the plant floor. It started when Donnie Brooke, one of Phil’s coworkers, attempted to force Polly to fire someone she had hired a few weeks earlier. When Polly refused, Donny began spreading a story about Polly sitting on his lap while in the presence of Phil for the purpose of embarrassing him. Polly also received a copy of the pornographic photo with the handwritten reference to her. Later, after she and her assistant complained that someone took money from the assistant’s desk drawer, Polly found one of her tires had been slashed. She reported this vandalism to HR and implicated one of the maintenance workers. When Acme took no action to resolve the matter, she finally resigned three months before her husband left.

Phil and Polly filed separate suits against Acme. Phil claimed he was the target of sexual harassment, retaliation and constructive discharge. Polly alleged sexual harassment and constructive discharge.

How could this situation have been avoided? Are company bulletin boards common property? Are employees obliged to act in a civil manner toward coworkers? How should one respond to boorish coworkers? Is it a good idea to work where one’s significant other also works?

A corporate consultant says:

It appears the inmates are running the asylum. Company bulletin boards aren’t common property. They’re company property and reflect how a plant is led. Are employees obligated to behave in a civil manner toward each other? Absolutely. Should you confront boorish coworkers? You bet. Is it a good idea for significant others to work at the same place? Maybe, but it depends on a number of factors. Do these cases meet the legal definition of harassment? Yes. Management was notified but didn’t take appropriate action. Could HR be held accountable? Yup.

My advice has two parts: leadership and the offended parties. From the leadership perspective, the plant’s management abandoned its most basic responsibility: to provide a non-hostile work environment. When managers are informed of, but don’t confront inappropriate behaviors, they’re in effect supporting those behaviors.

A method that leaders should use to address inappropriate behavior is called harnessing. We harness directly when we observe inappropriate behavior and are in a position of authority over the person committing the behaviors. Harnessing inappropriate behavior is a seven-step process, as follows.

Find an isolated, neutral location, state directly and specifically what you saw happening, state your concern and the consequences of those actions, invite the person to explain their point of view and listen carefully, review with the person your expectations and provide any needed training or information, ask for a commitment from the person to improve, and acknowledge the commitment.

We need to understand what drives behavior so the cause can be mitigated. When leaders fail to confront or harness harmful behaviors, they weaken and expose the organization to lower morale, lower performance efficiency and increased employee turnover.

In the beginning, Phil appears to have had a realistic attitude with respect to “paying his dues.” Working on less-desirable jobs and doing them well is one way to pay your dues. It provides an opportunity to learn the systems and the routine, and to earn the respect of coworkers and supervisors. We would assume there was no problem with Phil’s or Polly’s work performance.

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