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February 6, 2007 > Watercooler Counsel

Watercooler Counsel

By Rich Proulx & Malinda Tuazon

Sticks, Stones, and Wintertime Blues
Q: The other day, one of my older workers pulled me aside to complain about his coworkers and the language they use with each other: "These kids keep calling each other the 'n' word. That is simply unacceptable. Tell them to stop it." Most of these younger workers are African American, but he and I aren't. Isn't this just a case of young people using hip-hop slang? And if they don't aim it at anyone else, do I really need to get involved in this intergenerational mess?

Don't Have Time For This
Union City

A: Regardless of what they say about "sticks and stones," ignoring name-calling or "harmless" horseplay can really hurt a company. Anytime an employee puts you on notice, that's a key opportunity for an employer to step up to the plate. Even if the name calling wasn't aimed at the person complaining, take it seriously - because the laws against workplace harassment do. "The victim does not have to be the person harassed but could be anyone affected by the offensive conduct," explains EEOC Supervisory Investigator Francisco Melara. "Even if people talk and joke around in a certain way with friends on personal time, it's wise to make it clear that there are different standards for language and behavior at work."

The question should never be, "Is this serious enough for me to get involved?" because you want to intervene before it gets serious. The legal standard for harassment is "severe or pervasive." Best to nip things in the bud and take action before your workplace fits this definition. Setting ground rules and eliminating misunderstanding early on will save you headaches down the line.


Q: I was just diagnosed with SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder): I feel sluggish and don't have any drive. It's definitely affecting my work, so my doctor suggested a window office to increase daily exposure to sun light. My supervisor took one look at the doctor's note and told me it was impossible-window offices are allocated based on seniority. Is this disability discrimination?

Woefully Windowless
Fremont

A: If you believe your employer is refusing to accommodate your disability, you can certainly call the EEOC. But before you pick up the phone, let's review the reasoning behind a "reasonable accommodation." The law requires an employer to accommodate an employee with a disability - as long as it's not an undue hardship on the business. Your employer is not required to fulfill your exact request, just to engage in a good faith effort to find a working solution. You should know that the courts have ruled an accommodation can be an undue hardship if bumping another employee from a window office breaches an established seniority system, which are common in unionized establishments. Fortunately for you, SAD has broken into the mainstream consciousness and more people now understand that, while the effects are seasonal, they can be devastating to a sufferer's lifestyle and productivity. There are drugs which have been shown to improve the conditions of individuals with SAD and there are many different models of light-therapy boxes and dawn simulators that can help recalibrate your biological internal clock. If there's something you need at work to perform your job duties, certainly ask your employer to work with you to find an effective solution. Just don't expect the corner office! And, by working with your doctor to find effective alternative treatment, you may find you're able to handle it all at home and don't need to rely on your employer's reasonableness at all!


Our team of government experts will mentor you through intergenerational workplace messes since January is National Mentoring Month. NMM's goal, according to www.mentor.org, is to focus "national attention on the need for mentors" in order to "assure brighter futures for our young people." Send your questions to Watercooler.Counsel@eeoc.gov. Rich is a former Supervisory Investigator and Malinda is a current Federal Investigator for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission www.eeoc.gov. Identifying information in the questions may be fictional.
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