Lynne Curry: Exempt worker criticized over late arrival times

THE WORKPLACEDecember 20, 2013 

Q. My employer doesn't seem to realize we live in Alaska where ice and snow affect an employee's ability to arrive on time.

I live in the Valley because we can't afford Anchorage housing prices, and there's no way I can arrive consistently at 8 a.m. without leaving before 7 a.m., which is ridiculous. It should take me approximately 40-50 minutes to drive to Anchorage but if there's a slow driver bottlenecking the fast lane or an accident, I get in between 8:10 and 8:45. And every time that happens, my manager mentions it even though it's out of my control.

Since I'm exempt, I believe this violates my status.

A. If your employer docks your pay for your late arrivals, it violates your exempt status. If your manager simply asks you questions, it doesn't.

If your manager actually did what you're suggesting, asking Anchorage-based employees to arrive at 8 a.m. while allowing Valley commuters to arrive 10 to 45 minutes later, he'd be instituting pay inequity.

Most employers expect exempt employees to work between 40 to 45 or 50 hours weekly. Instead of resenting your manager, put thought into what you can do to alleviate his concerns. Do you work through lunch or stay late? If so, let him know. And if snow, ice and slow drivers regularly result in your arriving late and you refuse to schedule an earlier start time, you actually control your late arrival.

Q. When one of my employees asked for time off to attend a coven, I thought she was making a joke. Then she directed me to the Wiccans of Alaska website. It really exists, with their tag line "Calling all Witches, Wise Ones, Wiccans ... Want to take a break from the 'Broom Closet' and get out to meet others? We are based in Anchorage and Mat-Su but open to all."

Now, I think she's nuts. Also, we've got several fundamentalist Christians and a fairly no-nonsense group of employees here, and when they learn I'm giving a witch time off to attend a coven, some of them won't want to work with her while others will fall over laughing at me for buying into this coven nonsense.

A. According to attorney turned HR consultant Rick Birdsall, "The right to practice religious beliefs freely is a constitutionally-based, founding principle of our nation."

"Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, employers cannot discriminate on the basis of religion and must reasonably accommodate to honor their employees' sincerely-held religious beliefs unless doing so would impose an undue-hardship on their business operations."

Birdsall adds, "Employers have the right to request documentation that an employee's claimed religious practice is sincere." Further, employers can evaluate the employee's accommodation request in terms of its reasonableness. "There is no cookbook formula for doing this," says Birdsall, "it requires a case-by-case analysis."

Although employers can turn down "unreasonable" requests, you'd need to prove your Wiccan employee's leave created an undue hardship to turn it down. Also, you can't discriminate among religions. Thus, if you allow Christian employees or Jewish employees extended leave for mission trips or to visit the Holy Land, you may need to allow your Wiccan time for her coven -- even if you personally find her choice repugnant.

Now that your Wiccan has outed herself to you, prepare for the consequences should she broadcast her beliefs to others. You can't allow others to mock her, any more than you can allow employees to make jokes about Jehovah's witnesses, Muslims or any other religion -- even those who choose atheism.

Finally, if employees tease you for allowing this time off request, that's the price you pay for being a manager. Managers make tough calls -- which include allowing employees with beliefs other than their own or popular ones to practice them.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Co. Inc. Send your questions to her at lynne@thegrowthcompany.com. You can follow Lynne on Twitter @lynnecurry10 or through www.workplacecoachblog.com.

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