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Unintentional 'indiscretion' spells reprimand

Lynne Curry

Q. At 11 p.m. on the Fourth of July, I took my kids to the office. I proudly showed them around our office suite, and then we went into a coworker's office because his windows offered the best vantage point to watch the holiday fireworks from inside. I had originally intended to watch from my office but my windows didn't offer quite as good a view.

I'd brought snacks, toys and blankets to keep the kids comfortable. I made sure we cleaned up everything before we left.

Two days ago, I received a written reprimand for my "indiscretion." In our company, a written reprimand means I'm ineligible for an end-of-the-year bonus.

I get that I should have asked my coworker for permission to use his office but I didn't want to disturb him at home and I don't see that I really did anything wrong. My boss reads your column and I'm hoping you'll help.

A. First, you should have asked your coworker. A private office is not a public space. Second, I wonder if there's more to the story; somehow your employer learned that you'd been in your coworker's office. At the same time, because you meant no harm, I hope your employer will reconsider what may be an overly harsh punishment for an innocent act.

A July 3, 2012, National Labor Relations Board decision against the University of Southern California Hospital may help you present your employer with another view.

In that case, hospital policy stated that employees who had completed their assigned shifts and were off duty could not enter or re-enter the hospital or any work area outside the hospital except to visit a patient, receive medical treatment or conduct hospital-related business.

The labor board ruled that an employer's off-duty employee access policy may only be upheld if it is clearly disseminated to all employees. In your case, this may not have happened if you were unaware of such a policy. The labor board also noted that a policy barring off-duty employees' access to the employer's facility, except for employer-sponsored events, violated the National Labor Relations Act.

Although that case concerned a hospital, a facility that allows public access to most areas, other private or public sector employers may have safety, confidentiality or other reasons for restricting their employees' off-duty access to offices to which employees wouldn't have access during the workday.

According to lawyer Lee Holen, "The Alaska Supreme Court requires employers to treat similar employees alike if the situations are closely comparable. Are you aware of other instances in which other employees were allowed in the office after hours with no consequences?"

Holen adds, "If you work for a private employer and not a public facility such as a hospital, you don't have strong legal grounds to complain, particularly as you used your co-worker's office rather than your own. It's an expensive lesson but when in doubt it's better to ask permission, even if it means bothering someone on a holiday."

Renea Saade, another lawyer, adds, "Employers are obligated to follow their written discipline policies. If the written warning is not consistent with the employer's written policy, particularly any progressive-discipline policy, the reader should point this out to the manager."

Your best strategy: First, genuinely apologize to your coworker for using his office without permission. Second, apologize to your manager, tell him you've learned a valuable lesson and ask him to consider some less severe discipline.

You simply wanted your kids to enjoy the fireworks. Let's hope your manager agrees: no harm, no foul.

Dr. Lynne Curry is a management/employee trainer and owner of the consulting firm The Growth Company Inc. Questions can be directed to her at thegrowthcompany.com.


LYNNE CURRY
Management