Q I work with a number of rather young male and female workers. Often, the conversations turn to detailed, sometimes intimate discussions of dating. I worry that joining in these conversations may subject me to accusations of sexual harassment, since I am a "middle-aged" male. What should I do?
--D.J., Santa Ana
A Although it may be unlikely that anyone would construe discussions among co-workers about their dating activities to be a form of sexual harassment, you might want to be prudent and steer clear of these discussions.
Socializing and "bonding" with co-workers can be important, but you are obviously concerned about the tone that some of these discussions take. The safest strategy would be to keep a low profile when the discussions turn intimate. You are wise to consider how your behavior in the workplace might be interpreted by others.
Kravis Leadership Institute
Claremont McKenna College
Feeling Pressured to Quit Q I have been a support-staff employee at the same law firm for the better part of 20 years, and, given that I am fully vested in my pension plan and have the maximum amount of vacation, I have reason to suspect that management has been instructed either to induce me to resign or to terminate my employment.
In recent months, I have been assigned several projects at a time--all with similar deadlines. I can meet most but not all of the deadlines. I am invariably reprimanded for failing to meet all deadlines, yet management will not authorize overtime for me or hire temporary help.
Inasmuch as I am over 40, I am highly unlikely to be hired by other law firms. I have written to the California labor commissioner, only to be told that its personnel can be of no assistance. Can any other government agency be of assistance? Should I hire a lawyer?
--J.S., Mar Vista
A Unfortunately, employers sometimes resort to harassment to try to force employees to quit.
Although the California labor commissioner apparently was unable to assist you, it should not be concluded that the office was avoiding you. The commissioner is not set up to assist with discrimination claims unless they are based on whistle-blowing or a similar type of activity by the employee. If the harassment arises out of discrimination, the appropriate state agency is the Department of Fair Employment and Housing.
A lawyer can certainly help you understand your rights in the workplace while you are still employed. In fact, lawyers like to get involved in a case before a termination or resignation occurs. Much more evidence of the employer's wrongdoing can be obtained if the employee is still working.
The real challenge is what to do about the problem while you are still there. You indicate that you would like to retain the job but solve the problem. You need to be very diplomatic.
Put your claims and concerns in writing to your supervisor. If the firm gives you too many assignments and you can't meet all of your deadlines, ask for a clarification of priorities. Document any differences between the way the firm treats you and others. Try to determine the reason you are being harassed. That might make a big difference in how you respond.
If you are being harassed by one particular supervisor, consider approaching that person privately about the problem. You might "win more points" than by going over the supervisor's head. If you need to, however, go up the ladder of authority to discuss your problem.
Review the employee handbook for employer rules regarding this type of treatment. If there is an internal grievance procedure, consider using it.
An attorney's letter to management can accomplish a lot, but it can also ruin your future with your employer. Employers will seldom forget an employee who has threatened a lawsuit or who appears to have a lawyer ready to make a claim at the slightest mistake.
--Don D. Sessions
Employee rights attorney
Losing Commissions Q I work for a medical equipment manufacturer that employs field sales representatives. Most of the salespeople have very large geographical territories.
The company has instituted a new policy that penalizes representatives when the company learns, during a telemarketing call, that a representative's account had switched to a competitor. When this happens, a significant dollar amount is deducted from the representative's commission.
Can a company take commission dollars away from representatives for lost business in this manner?
A When an employee is paid on a commission basis, the employer must pay the employee the commission earned under terms of their agreement. An employer cannot penalize an employee for a loss of a customer.
But when a customer has switched business, the employee is entitled to commissions only on the business received up to the switch. After that, the employee is not entitled to additional commissions.
--William H. Hackel III
Employment law attorney
Spray, Gould & Bowers