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Waiting for Shoe to Drop on a Barefoot Co-Worker

June 08, 1997

Q A co-worker in her 60s consistently goes barefoot at work. At her age, her blue-veined, swollen ankles and feet are most unsightly, whether she is wearing a dress or long pants. She sits at her workstation and walks between other workstations and nearby departments in this manner.

This situation has been going on for some years and has been observed by co-workers, her supervisor and others in administrative positions, including the top manager. Apparently nothing has been said to her.

Those of us who work with her are embarrassed by her appearance and feel it reflects on our entire department, which is small.

What action would you recommend to correct this situation?

--B.B., La Habra


A You and perhaps others should go to your supervisor and mention the issue. It's possible that this worker has some sort of medical problem that makes it difficult for her to wear shoes, and management might be making some accommodations because of her condition.

If this is the case, management is doing the right thing by allowing her to go barefoot. The company is making reasonable accommodations for her disability.

If this is not the case, however, then other concerns must be considered. Employees walking in bare feet could present a health and safety issue, and management should be aware of the risks. In addition, not wearing shoes is unprofessional.

Because other workers are concerned about this and some find her bare feet offensive, this is a sign that management needs to take some sort of action, or at least inform this woman's co-workers why they are allowing her to work in bare feet.

--Ron Riggio, director

Kravis Leadership Institute

Claremont McKenna College

Waiver Raises Medical Concerns

Q I was recently laid off from my job at a large company. I was given eight weeks' notice, according to company policy, as well as a detailed explanation of the severance procedure, which also deals with the steps to be taken to obtain the particular benefits offered.

As part of the procedure, I am required to sign a general release and waiver that forfeits any future claim I may have for damages suffered. This concerns me because I was placed on medical leave last year for 10 weeks by my physician because of the stresses of work and the work environment. I am still under the care of my doctor and am on prescription medication.

Does this existing condition affect the terms of the release? Also, might this make it difficult to get another job with a firm offering a comparable level of medical benefits?

--D.B., Los Angeles


A I do not know the exact terms of the release and waiver so I cannot provide you a specific response. However, you are certainly entitled to discuss your concerns with your employer and request that your concerns be specifically addressed in the release and waiver.

If your condition is covered by workers' compensation, your employer is mandated by law to provide you the opportunity to continue your health insurance. You may be obligated, however, to pay the entire insurance premium.

Any employers you subsequently interview with are not entitled to ask questions regarding your medical condition. Instead, they are limited to asking questions regarding whether you can perform the job, with or without an accommodation.

A new employer may conduct a background check, including contacting your former employer. Even though the topic is not to be discussed under the law, it's possible that information regarding your medical leave may slip into the conversation. I suggest that you ask your employer to amend your release and waiver stipulating that your medical agreement and leave won't be discussed with a prospective new employer.

If another company makes an offer to you and you accept, your new employer may require you to submit to a physical or mental examination. You cannot be denied the job unless it is shown that you are physically or mentally incapable of performing the work.

--William H. Hackel III

Employment law attorney

Is Customer Really Always Right?

Q A retailer terminated an employee on the spot for defending herself against a verbally abusive customer. The company's policy is the customer is always right. But what about the employee? Shouldn't she be counseled rather than fired?

--G.W., Cerritos


A Unless there is a union contract or a formal policy of progressive discipline, employers generally are free to use their discretion in determining the appropriate penalty for workplace misconduct.

Here, the employer may have wanted to make an example of the employee as a means of communicating to other employees the importance of good customer relations. Without customers, most businesses would not exist.

Particularly in the retail industry, policies such as "the customer is always right" are common. It is usually more important to most retailers to keep the customer than to try to determine who is "right" in a dispute involving a customer.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips

Labor law instructor, UC Irvine

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