Johnny C. Taylor Jr.
Johnny C. Taylor Jr., a human resources expert, is tackling your questions as part of a series for USA TODAY. Taylor is president and CEO of the Society for Human Resource Management, the world’s largest HR professional society.
The questions are submitted by readers, and Taylor’s answers below have been edited for length and clarity.
Have a question? Do you have an HR or work-related question you’d like me to answer? Submit it here.
Question: Last week at a company happy hour, my co-worker made a sexually suggestive comment to me when no one was around. I have no problem with her, but it did make me feel uncomfortable. Should I pretend like it didn’t happen or tell someone about it? – Anonymous
Johnny C. Taylor Jr: American workers often spend more of their waking hours with co-workers than with their own families. This familiarity can lead people to feel comfortable addressing others casually, especially after a few drinks, and sometimes in ways that are inappropriate in a professional setting.
What you certainly should not do is pretend it didn’t happen. As with most tricky interpersonal situations, the best approach is an open and honest conversation. Be transparent with your co-worker by sharing that while her comment may have been well-intentioned, it made you feel uncomfortable.
Be specific and explain your feelings to her without accusation. You can ask her not to do it again – respectfully, of course. Any sign of hostility will only strain your relationship further.
After your conversation, wait and evaluate her reaction. If she apologizes, expresses remorse and changes her behavior, that may solve your problem. People make mistakes and have lapses in judgment sometimes, but if they are genuinely apologetic and course-correct, then hopefully you can move forward.
On the other hand, if she refuses to respect your request, then it may be time to involve HR. More likely than not, your company’s policy on sexual harassment requires you to tell HR when something like this occurs – even if that occurrence wasn’t at work. This is important to understand because even off-site incidents can have a profound effect on employee relations in the workplace.
So, yes, tell someone about it. Tell the person who made you feel uncomfortable as a first step. Hopefully, your co-worker will understand and respect your wishes. But if she doesn’t, no matter how things turn out, just remember the first step for you will be starting that conversation.
Q: I recently broke my ankle playing basketball outside work, which is making it nearly impossible for me to do my job on the factory floor. The recovery time is about three months, so I’m worried my company will grow impatient with me. Are they allowed to fire me for a non-work-related injury? – Anonymous
Taylor: Unfortunately, accidents do happen, and it’s not always easy to work while you are recovering from an injury. Fortunately, there are a few ways to improve your situation.
First, you could propose working in a capacity that is less physically demanding while you recover. Assuming you have a history of strong job performance, your company should be receptive to providing a relevant accommodation, such as a temporary transfer to another position that reduces the amount of time spent on your feet.
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Second, and depending on how long you’ve worked for your company and its size, you may also be eligible for job-protected leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). The FMLA is a federal law requiring covered employers to provide their workers with unpaid leave for qualified medical and family reasons. To see if you’re eligible, check your employee handbook and speak to an HR professional.
Beyond the protected leave provided under FMLA, employers likely have the discretion to do what suits them best. According to what is called the “Employment at Will Doctrine,” employers generally have the right to hire and fire anyone for any reason or for no reason at all. (Similarly, employees are equally free to take or leave jobs as they wish.) Unless there is a union contract or other employment agreement that states otherwise, and if there is no violation of civil rights protections, such as race and gender, an employee who cannot perform a job because of an injury sustained away from work can be subject to termination.
That said, just because employees have the right to do so, doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do. That legal right also doesn’t make it a wise business decision, especially in this economy where employers are fighting tooth and nail for talent.
That’s why the reality is that many companies opt to keep their valuable employees by making reasonable accommodations for them while they heal from injury or illness.
Keep that in mind as you negotiate a different role within the company during your recovery period. And feel better soon!