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Lynne Curry: Did 'strange' employee innocently poison her co-workers?

Lynne Curry

Q. We had an office lunch yesterday. These used to be fun events held to celebrate birthdays. Yesterday's ended abruptly.

Another employee pulled me aside and told me she smelled "Von's" chicken salad and it smelled funny. I took some, smelled it, took the bowl into the kitchen and decided to toss it. When I went back into the lunchroom, several of the employees had already left the luncheon, including one of the two birthday employees. It was clear the story had spread.

The remainder of the luncheon was, to say the least, awkward. The only employee who didn't look distressed was Von.

I hoped this would be a one-afternoon drama but one employee called in sick this morning. I was also confronted by two employees who asked me what I was going to do about the "Von situation." I asked them what they meant. Apparently three employees got sick after a lunch a month ago. The chief suspect in that case: Von's potato salad.

Von is very good at what she does. She's also a bit strange, wears old clothes and brings odd things wrapped in grocery store plastic bags to eat at lunch. When others complain that Von's leftovers smell up the refrigerator and try to chuck them in the trash, Von takes them to her office to eat.

What exactly do I do here?

A. Find out what's going on -- and fix it.

You have employees at risk -- including Von, who is now the target of company-wide gossip.

Von may be blessed with a cast-iron stomach, leading her to improperly cook, store or handle food. She may have brought salmonella to lunch along with chicken salad. Her potato salad may have carried staphylococcal or another food poison into your office.

If an employee brings suspect food to a company potluck, place the food where it can't be eaten and call the Municipal Health Department's Environmental Health Program. They can interview anyone potentially stricken by food poisoning and launch an investigation into how the food was prepared, handled or contaminated.

That Von wasn't distressed when you threw out her chicken salad and eats foods others would chuck suggests she may have a mental or emotional disability. If so, the Americans with Disabilities Act requires that you accommodate her without putting your other employees at risk. This means you need to quell the gossip by asking other employees for kindness and reassuring them you'll the handle the situation.

Finally, Von brought food to an employer-sponsored potluck. If you suspect Von intentionally placed co-workers at risk, contact the police -- because you may share Von's liability. Employers can be liable for employee actions and intentional torts when they're committed during the scope of employment or have a "causal nexus to the employee's work."

In a recent case, Theresa Drummond, a medical assistant placed at a Kaiser facility by a temporary health care employment agency, quarreled with colleague Sara Montague for weeks over misplaced lab slips and storeroom stocking. Drummond then spiked Montague's water bottle with carbolic acid, burning her tongue and throat.

Montague sued Drummond for battery and Nursefinders, the staffing agency, for negligence, claiming Nursefinders should have trained its staff to use methods other than poisoning for handling disputes. The court only dismissed the lawsuit because Drummond acted "outside the course and scope of her employment." You don't have that escape clause if Von intended mischief.

Do employees occasionally play food games at potlucks and get caught? Yes. Last November, 47-year-old elementary school teacher Teresa Badger served marijuana-laced food to colleagues at a potluck without their knowledge. After the potluck, several guests felt sick. One was rushed to the hospital. The next day another guest went to the hospital with chest pain. Her blood work revealed THC in her system. Police arrested Badger, who subsequently confessed.

What do you need to do? Find out what happened -- and fix it.

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

 


Lynne Curry
THE WORKPLACE