AD Main Menu

Office safety paramount during domestic crisis

Lynne Curry

Q. A year ago our office manager married one of our best engineers. They had a stormy romance and now have a rocky marriage. Apparently the weekend was bad, because the office manager showed up this morning saying she planned to file for divorce and had sought a restraining order against her soon-to-be-ex-husband.

How do we run a business with this going on? Can we simply terminate the office manager? We can't afford to lose the engineer. Needless to say, everyone in the office has chosen sides in this situation.

A. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration, the federal agency that regulates workplace safety, requires employers to provide a safe environment for all employees. Your office manager, by letting you know she has filed for a restraining order, put you on notice that domestic violence might affect her in your workplace.

According to attorney Tom Owens III, "Even when the dispute threatening employee safety originates outside the workplace and in a private relationship, providing a safe working environment is always the employer's responsibility. Employers must treat a protective order like any other potential workplace hazard."

When both individuals work for the same employer, says Owens, "a protective order requires careful analysis of the situation's impact on the working environment, and ongoing attention. Some orders present minor disruptions that can be resolved with adjustments to employee work schedules. Other orders may make it impossible for both employees to continue working."

Your first step is to meet individually with your office manager and engineer and then decide if you can make it safe for your office manager and still conduct business. If not, call your attorney and consider whether to place one or both employees on a leave of absence until the situation sorts out. You may also want to provide access to employee assistance counseling.

"Terminations are the last resort after all other options such as telecommuting and leaves of absence," says Owens. "Employers who take precipitous action may find themselves explaining to a jury that they fired either an employee who sought legal protection from abuse or an employee later found to have been wrongly accused."

At the same time, you can't continue as before, without risking violence, and thus may need legal counsel as well as guidance from someone skilled in risk management.

Finally, the "sides-taking" in your organization helps no one. Ask everyone to stop talking about the situation.

Q. I hate my boss and I'm tired. I'd really like to quit and just hang out for while but I don't have the money. I've tried to find a new job but I can't find a good one.

I've figured out that I could make it on unemployment but not if I have to wait six weeks for it to start. I've tried to get my boss to fire me but he's a wimp. Would it work with the unemployment office to say the job was so miserable I had to leave and that was the same as being fired?

A. Your boss could probably use that line because you apparently made it equally miserable for him but you might have trouble. Unemployment benefits exist for those who lose their jobs through no fault of their own.

Just last month, an employee with far better facts lost a similar case. A worker at Snug Harbor Seafoods quit, complaining that conflicts with her supervisor started after she took over a job previously held by the supervisor's girlfriend. According to the employee, her supervisor cut her working hours and ignored workplace safety issues. The employee commuted by bike and when her bike broke down, she had a hard time arranging for alternative transportation because her supervisor scheduled her shifts late in the day.

In Alaska, employees who voluntarily quit can't receive full unemployment benefits unless they show they had compelling reasons to leave and have exhausted all other reasonable alternatives. If they can't prove this, it delays and reduces their unemployment benefits.

In the Snug Harbor case, the employee couldn't show that her supervisor took any hostile or discriminatory acts, so she lost full unemployment.

Management/employee trainer and the owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc., Dr. Lynne Curry provides columns to newspapers in multiple states. For questions, Curry can be reached at