In the Trenches: Acme treats married couple poorly

Nov. 13, 2008
In this installment of "In the Trenches," Acme employees treat a married couple poorly. Remember, only the names are changed to protect the innocent.

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.

From Phil’s perspective, he was going into a lion’s den. It appears that Phil represented a threat to his coworkers or they wanted some other person to fill his position. A good supervisor could have predicted and anticipated this. In any event, Phil was in a difficult position.

Peer-to-peer workplace relationships can be difficult. For a person in Phil’s or Polly’s position, there’s a sequence of activities that I would recommend. The idea is to solve the problem person-to-person at the lowest level. If that fails, or if the situation is widespread, other actions are needed.

Communicate with the antagonists using an approach similar to the harnessing technique. Research your rights and the organization’s policies regarding the situation. Inform your supervisor, union representative and the HR director about your efforts to address the problem directly. Document the discussions, confrontations or offensive behaviors. Include dates, times, descriptions of what happened and names of others who were present or involved. Confirm with your supervisor, union rep or HR director your understanding of the policies and their responsibilities, and get a commitment from them to monitor and act in accordance with policy. If any further offensive behavior occurs, notify your supervisor, union rep or HR director. If the resulting compliance with policy is insufficient, consider formal arbitration or the services of a lawyer. If appropriate, send letters to the company leadership (plant manager, CEO, board of directors, etc.) outlining the situation. Start at the lowest level where the problem is occurring. View organization policies as a double-edged sword; they’re to be followed, but they’re also there to protect and provide the expectation of a non-hostile work environment.

The majority of problems can, and should, be handled between the offended and offending parties. There always will be differences of opinions. You can’t control what people think because they come from different backgrounds, cultures and perspectives. However, you can and must guide how coworkers behave. Failure of managers and supervisors to deal with bad behavior is an indication of weak, ineffective leadership.

Tom Moriarty, P.E., CMRP
Organizational Reliability Professional Services Consultant
(321) 773-3356
[email protected]

An academician says:

Polly and Phil should have reported any episode of harassment to their supervisors and to HR quickly, and Acme should have stopped it immediately. These are clear cases of sexual harassment (hostile work environment) and are illegal. Acme needed to take quick action. Yes, coworkers are expected to be civil to each other, and bulletin boards are company property and not for public postings (consider the recent case in which an employee was terminated for posting anti-gay literature on the company bulletin board).

Should spouses be employed at the same company? Well, the answer to this question seems to have changed over the years. Some companies (a long, long time ago) prohibited spouses from working in the same company. Then, working in the same company was fine, but spouses couldn’t work in the same department. Now, working in the same department is fine, but spouses can’t supervise one another. There are still some prohibitions on spouses (particularly the supervision one), and all are perfectly legal. Judging by current standards, Phil and Polly didn’t violate any of the common spouse rules.

I find it interesting that there are a variety of prohibitions related to spouses working together, but nothing on fathers and sons, or sisters or cousins working together. That’s the way one is often hired: A family member recommends you, and sometimes you are supervised by a relative. There are no prohibitions on those arrangements, but spouses are different. I suspect many of the people who were accusing Phil of having received his job through Polly’s influence received their jobs via someone’s influence.

If I were Polly and Phil, I’d file a complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) and let that organization get first shot at the case, and then follow up with a civil suit. Acme needs to get hung on this one. They were dead wrong, and need to do some housecleaning, starting with the errant supervisors and the head of HR.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

Hasn't Acme's human resources department heard of the term sexual harassment?”

Both Polly and Phil experienced a sexually hostile work environment. Polly appropriately reported the problem to human resources, and Phil informed his immediate supervisor. Phil's supervisor should have reported the complaint to human resources. But in any event, Acme was on notice of the problem and did nothing. Acme won’t fare well in the ensuing litigation, at least not with respect to the sexual harassment claims.

Neither employee is likely to prevail on a constructive discharge claim, however. The general legal standard for a constructive discharge is conduct so abhorrent that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it. Polly and Phil weren’t treated well by their coworkers or by their employer, but the conduct they experienced wasn’t so inimical that no reasonable person could be expected to endure it.

As a legal matter, employees have no obligation to act in a civil manner toward their coworkers. More than one court has stated that the major federal law that prohibits employment discrimination was not intended to produce a civility code. In other words, employees can be as nasty to each other as they wish. What an employer may not condone, however, is conduct that is directed at a person because of his or her race, sex, religion, national origin or any other characteristic protected by law.

On the other hand, nothing in the law precludes an employer from terminating an at-will employee who persists in being nasty, unpleasant or abusive to his or her coworkers, even if that conduct isn’t directed toward the recipient because of the person's sex or national origin. In other words, an employer has a legal obligation to end unlawful harassment, but no obligation to end unpleasantness. An employer is permitted to take any action it wishes against an employee who is rude or unpleasant.

Spouses who opt to work for the same company can expect problems. But every worker, even one employed at the same place as a spouse, has a right to a work environment that is free from harassment.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

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