I recently saw an episode of the television series House, and the episode ended [SPOILER ALERT] with a termination. In the show, Dr. House decides for mental health reasons to give up his role as head of the department of diagnostics at his hospital. Predictably, his long term employee, Dr. Foreman, asks for the promotion to his position and gets it. There is one personal complication in Dr. Foreman’s new position. One of his new employees is also his girlfriend. The two doctors were able to manage the lines between their personal and professional relationship when they were coworkers, but with Foreman as the Boss, this division became more difficult. Not wanting to give up his girlfriend, Foreman decides to fire her instead. His plan was to give her up as a subordinate and keep dating her.
Wait a sec – that’s illegal, isn’t it? I mean, how is it NOT gender discrimination to fire a female employee for sleeping with the new boss? Interestingly, Foreman makes this decision alone. He does not take this up with the hospital administrator or anyone else. Either the hospital has no such procedures for terminations, or the new department head was not briefed on them. Nor, apparently, was he trained in employment law matters. Would this sort of thing happen in the real world? You betcha! Not because we don’t enough laws or case histories to instruct us in these matters, but because many bad bosses act alone, without understanding of or regard for the protections afforded employees.
My point here is that there should not have to be a law to address a case such as this. So much lip service is given to people being the organization’s greatest asset, yet we still need the EEOC, the Department of Labor, the National Labor Relations Board, other federal and numerous state agencies to enforce the volumes of employment laws that are written to protect employees from bad bosses who fail to show their employees the respect they deserve.
I heard two disturbing stories from a friend last week. In one case, an employee was unable to work overtime and weekends while his wife was dying of cancer. He is now “retired”. Meanwhile, his former boss, who was covering the workload, has been putting in six and sometimes seven day workweeks, or so it sounded. Yet when he took one day off to take his wife, also with a serious health condition, to the doctor he was docked. The FMLA should certainly have protected the first husband, and the second should have been protected by Illinois’ One Day Rest In Seven Act, if not the Fair Labor Standards Act. Granted, the FMLA does allow an exempt employee to be “docked” for time missed during an FMLA leave, but the Illinois law guarantees that an employee can take one day off during every seven day period. In other words, if you work Saturday and Sunday, you are entitled to take another day off during the same work week.
Look, I don’t know enough about these two cases to know if there is a real legal case against the employer, but if there isn’t, there should be. I remember a time before the FMLA when a very bad CEO wanted to change a policy allowing a two month personal leave to only one month, would not grant leave to mothers who needed to make child care arrangements, or make alternate work schedules for those who wanted to achieve some work-life balance. It’s because of bosses like him that we have to have a law protecting employees from adverse employment actions if they become ill or need to care for an ill family member. Unfortunately, as anyone in Human Resources knows, this law put a great administrative burden on employers, a burden that would not be necessary if bosses regarded employees as assets and worked with them to make the employment relationship beneficial for both sides. An employee who is already working excessive overtime should be able to take a day off for a personal matter, even if vacation time is already exhausted.
It all comes down to the X versus Y style managers. The Y style managers believe that most employees truly want to do a good job and give their organization their best effort. Therefore, if an employee needs an accommodation, he or she is afforded it as part of the employment relationship. The X style manager believes that most employees will try to do as little as possible and abuse the employment relationship. Therefore, employees will be managed by excessive rules and restrictions with little or no accommodation for personal circumstances. Many of the laws that Human Resources professionals need to know and administer are the result of employees complaining about lack of basic fair treatment.
On the other hand, I am sometimes grateful we have these laws, because they make it easier for me to advocate on behalf of the employee to make sure they are treated fairly, even as I am watching out for the best interests of the organization. The two goals should NOT be mutually exclusive!