Q: Some months ago, a temp employee accused one of our managers of hitting on her. We pulled the manager in for questioning. He absolutely denied it.
We didn't want trouble and so we asked the temp agency to take back the employee. She had been with us for four months and done good work, however, we didn't believe her story, particularly as nothing like this had ever come up before.
We just received a letter from this employee's attorney stating that she plans to sue us for retaliation because we sent her back to the employee agency and they didn't send her out on any more long-term jobs. Because she had a steady four months of employment with us, she is suing us for the money she would have made if she had worked steadily for a year. Because of her supposed emotional distress, we are supposed to pony up an additional $300,000.
This seems completely bizarre. We don't have a lot of money to hire an attorney and we're too small to have anyone who handles human resources. According to our office manager, the personnel agency that sent us the temporary employee is her employer. We've called them, however, she also sued them and they're not very helpful. What do we need to do?
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A: Call an attorney. Although employers assume personnel agencies have sole responsibility for the temp employees they send out, courts and juries see it differently.
A recent Fifth Circuit Court Decision in Johnson v. Manpower Professional Services Inc. documents what generally happens. According to this court, while the personnel agency Manpower paid the temporary employee, the company at which the temporary employee worked, Air Liquide, controlled the employee's work life by supervising him on his work site and thus had employer liability under the civil rights laws, the FLSA and other employment statutes.
This means you need to treat this temporary employee's complaint as you would one made by a regular employee. She said a manager hit on her. Although he denied it, you can't afford to turn a deaf ear to her complaint. Even though no one earlier protested, your manager could have harassed this employee.
For his sake and your company's, interview the female employees who work with him. If they also describe him as a great guy who treats women fairly, document that and use it as your defense to a potentially bogus complaint.
If, however, you learn your manager interacts problematically with female employees, discipline him and realize you may be on the hook for ending an employment relationship with a good employee and the consequences she later received.
Bottom line -- temporary or leased employees, once on your worksite, deserve the fair treatment you give to all your employees.
Q: One of our new hires says she is allergic to fragrance. This has caused a huge problem as several of our long-term and solid employees like to wear perfume and this new employee is potentially making a problem where none exists. I feel caught in the crossfire. Help.
A: Employees with allergies or sensitivities to various scents and smells are becoming more aggressive in asserting their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). The affects of allergies to fragrance, from respiratory difficulties and other serious health issues, can be severe.
As an employer, you need to balance the rights of your allergic employees with those of co-workers who want to keep using the hygiene and personal products they enjoy.
In the long run, if one employee's fragrance makes another employee sick, you need to ask the employees who can choose to use fragrances to consider the employee who lacks choice and suffers when others wear fragrances -- and leave their fragrances until after 5 p.m.
-- Lynne Curry is president of Alaska's The Growth Company Inc. in Anchorage. Email her at email@example.com.