One Woman in the Workplace

Q. One of the departments in my business is staffed with 14 men and one woman. We’re having all kinds of problems with this woman. For one thing, she answers the telephone during her lunch break and then feels she can leave work 30 minutes early.

Also, we think she’s trying to build a sexual harassment case against our company because she tries to turn comments the men make into insults. Right now, she’s trying to cash in on Workers’ Compensation by claiming an injury to her hand. The doctor doesn’t find any damage to her hand. This woman is a 12-year employee.

What can we do to end this situation?

A. At first glance, this could be an ineffective and possibly insecure employee looking for a way to retaliate against her boss and co-workers. But more careful examination gives other insights.

First… if the female employee doesn’t have the authority to adjust her own work hours, she may be out of line in leaving early without prior approval. However, she may well be correct in leaving work “early” since she must answer the phone during her lunch hour. That’s because under federal law:

      • A break of 20 minutes or less must be counted as paid work time, and
      • A break of more than 20 minutes in which the employee is not relieved of work duty also must be counted as paid, work time. (Also, check your state law because it may be even more advantageous to the employee regarding breaks and paid time.)

Second… the definition of sexual harassment goes far beyond the stereotyped behavior most people assume. Sexual harassment can be subtle, indirect and often unintended. A charge of sexual harassment isn’t limited to blatantly vulgar, suggestive actions or language. Maybe you have an “old boy network” which freezes out a female interloper?

Is it possible the female employee feels, for whatever reason, that she works in a hostile environment? Is she treated in demeaning ways? Do certain attitudes exist within the department that are less than gender-neutral? Dig deep enough to uncover the real facts.

Do this: Before taking action, make an honest assessment of this department. Using some of the insights above, make sure supervisors, department heads and managers have a clear understanding of sexual harassment and how they can prevent questionable behavior.

Don’t just assume the problem in this case is with the woman.

Third… about the suspicion of a bogus Workers’ Comp claim, some states allow employers the choice of doctors in work-related injuries. Exercise your right. If you haven’t already, work to create close communication with your Workers’ Comp insurance carrier. When you suspect a false claim, tell your carrier what you know about the claim. Put your carrier to work for you, so the claim can be denied if evidence supports a denial.

© 2017