Q: Our company is growing quickly and we've recently added several hires. As a result, everyone is doubled up in offices.
One of my best new hires, "Rob," is a great guy and productive, however, no one seems to want to share an office with him. Last month, his first office mate asked to be moved because he gave her the "creeps" and she wouldn't be more specific.
This morning "Stew," a shy, retiring guy and Rob's most recent office mate, asked to be moved. Stew wouldn't say how come so I went back to Rob's first office mate and asked her what the problem was. She said she would only tell me if I promised to keep what she said confidential. I learned that when she came into his office behind him Rob he jumped out of his chair and screamed at her with a look of rage on his face. She said that when Rob saw it was her he immediately settled down but after it happened several times, she had had enough.
I wasn't really able to check Rob's references when I hired him because we're his first civilian employer and previously he'd been overseas. What do I do or is the simplest thing to fire Rob and cite employment at will?
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A: Rob may be suffering from a post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), one of the signature disabilities of veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan and others who have suffered traumatic violence. Seventeen percent of soldiers returning from Iraq and Afghanistan have PTSD and to date, 342,642 U.S. veterans have been compensated for PTSD. 5.2 million American's experience PTSD in a year.
PTSD's symptoms include severe anxiety, irritability, sleeplessness, social isolation, nightmares, emotional numbness, the feeling one needs to be on guard at all times and severe reactions to otherwise innocuous events that trigger traumatic memories. Although the VA's National Center for PTSD executive director Matthew Friedman describes PTSD as "very treatable," he warns that some individuals don't seek help because they don't recognize they need it.
The Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) covers post-traumatic stress disorder when it substantially limits a major life activity. As an employer, if you learn Rob does suffer from PTSD, you need to provide him reasonable accommodation. According to the federal Equal Employment Opportunity Commission Chair Naomi Earp, "Members of the military who have bravely sacrificed for America should never have to come home and face unlawful obstacles because of service-related disability." Many employers fix this situation by addressing workplace triggers, such as when an employee walks unannounced behind another.
Could you move Rob's desk so he faces the door and fix the situation? If not, can you place a mirror on his computer monitor so he can see when someone approaches him from behind? Alternatively, given how hesitant Rob's office mates have been to open up, are the couple of instances you've heard about only the tip of the iceberg? What does Rob have to say?
Because you can't afford to make assumptions, you need to meet with Rob and assess the situation. You don't need to specify what you've agreed to keep confidential -- it's enough that two individuals have sought a different office mate. If you want more free guidance on PTSD accommodations, they're listed on the U.S. Department of Labor's Job Accommodation website, www.askJAN.
Finally, while you never want to jump to an employment at will firing based on unverified co-worker reports, the ADA doesn't shield Rob from conduct that poses a direct threat to others' safety. The alleged look of rage needs your prompt action.
w 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 www.thegrowth company.com.