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CAREERS / ETIQUETTE AT WORK | CHAPTER 7: HEALTH

Ah-Choo! Illness on the Job

November 04, 1996|DENISE HAMILTON | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's often the little health-care problems that generate the biggest headaches for employees and management. Here are some common issues that crop up and how our office etiquette expert suggests handling them:

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: My supervisor recently saw me take a bottle of prescription pills out of my purse and swallow two tablets with a cup of water. Since then, she's done everything but come out and ask me what kind of medication I'm on and whether I'm ill. I feel uncomfortable discussing this with her. What are my options?

--Stuck With a Nosy Boss

Dear Stuck: The general rule of thumb is that it's none of the boss' business what you are taking--whether it is Prozac or a few too many M&M's--unless it impairs your job performance. If your boss has noticed striking personality changes after you take pills, such as edginess, combativeness, falling asleep or absenteeism, she has a legitimate reason to inquire. Assuming that is not the case, why don't you try this response: "Thanks for your inquiry. But I don't feel comfortable discussing medical issues with you." If you believe this will alienate your boss and if the inappropriate questions persist, then Ms. Work Wise suggests that you take the matter up with your boss' boss and the human resources department. Always follow the pecking order. And if necessary, file a grievance with human resources documenting your supervisor's intrusive behavior.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I am a corporate attorney who has AIDS. My health is excellent, and so far I haven't had to take any time off, but I am worried about the future. My employer is quite conservative, and I'm afraid I could be let go if my illness became known. Is AIDS considered a disability under the Americans With Disabilities Act? What rights do I have as an employee? And how soon should I tell my supervisor?

--Healthy but Worried

Dear Worried: AIDS is indeed included under the Americans With Disabilities Act. However, the act applies only to employers with 15 or more workers. I presume that this would not be a problem in a corporate law firm, where the partners alone probably number more than 15. That being the case, in the interest of forthright disclosure as well as of self-protection, I recommend that you inform your supervisor sooner rather than later. Once you tell him or her, you will be protected under federal law from being let go. Companies also must provide "reasonable accommodation" to people with disabilities. That could mean anything from time off for medical appointments to moving your desk away from direct sunlight if it irritates your skin (a common problem for people with acquired immune deficiency syndrome). Bear in mind that there are rules about the confidentiality of such information. Your supervisor can tell his or her supervisor and on up the chain to human resources that you have AIDS. He or she is not at liberty to tell everyone in the office, however.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: As with many companies today, ours has--fortunately--adopted a no-smoking policy. The problem is that all the smokers now gather in an alcove outside, creating a health hazard for those of us who have to walk through a cloud of smoke on our way in and out of the office each day. What can I do?

--Gasping for Air

Dear Gasping: Network with like-minded nonsmokers. If there is a critical mass of employees, you can then go to your supervisor, register a polite complaint and ask whether people in other departments share this concern. Once the supervisors bring this up at their meetings, they will realize that the concern is widespread and may take some action. If the smokers are gathering on company property, the firm can easily extend its nonsmoking zone 15 feet (or whatever distance is appropriate) from the entrance of the building to give nonsmokers a buffer zone. If your supervisor is unresponsive, you may want to consider getting up a petition and turning it in to human resources. If you work in a union shop, turn to the shop steward. The key in any negotiation is to frame the problem as a health issue.

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Dear Ms. Work Wise: I am allergic to strong perfumes. The problem in our office is that one of my co-workers regularly shows up for work doused in a strong cologne. I have tried joking with him to get my point across and making subtle hints, but it hasn't worked. Meanwhile, the cologne is giving me headaches that are beginning to affect my ability to concentrate and meet deadlines. I'm worried about the consequences but don't know where to turn. Please help.

--Smelling to High Heaven

Dear Smelling: Taking a direct line may be called for. Don't be afraid to explain your allergy and tell your co-worker that his cologne is giving you headaches and affecting your ability to do your job. If that doesn't work, the next step is to follow the chain of command, telling your supervisor and then human resources. Chances are that you're not the only one who finds your co-worker's cologne offensive.

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