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Open Approach Needed to Closed-Door Meetings

September 28, 1997

Q: We recently underwent a company reorganization, and the ensuing confusion has put stress on all of us.

Two of the top managers have been burdened with a lot of the responsibility. But when these two get stressed out, they go into one of their offices, close the door and blow off steam.

I sympathize with them and understand their need to discuss, but sometimes they are in there for hours. These closed-door meetings interfere with the ability of the rest of us to get our jobs done because they are unavailable when we need them. It also doesn't look good from the employees' perspective.

How can I tell them about this without sounding as if I'm complaining?

--Y.L., Anaheim

A: If you are tactful in informing these two managers about your and your co-workers' concerns, I can't imagine that they would interpret it as a complaint.

Approach them in the spirit of teamwork and let them know that the team's productivity suffers when they are unavailable.

Recognize that they may need some time to discuss issues in private, but suggest that they could limit the length of their meetings, or have the meetings at more convenient times so they can make themselves available when they are needed by team members.

--Ron Riggio

Director, Kravis Leadership Institute

Claremont McKenna College

Compromise on Speaking English

Q: I work in a small shop with about 20 employees, the majority of whom speak Spanish. I do not mind their speaking Spanish to customers, etc., but I find it increasingly difficult to deal with this situation when they speak Spanish all the time.

Is there anything in the labor code that reflects these conditions in the workplace? I am sure that when all employees speak the same language during business hours, harmony and efficiency increase.

--B.C., Torrance

A: There is no law that requires employees to speak one specific language. In fact, a mandatory company language requirement may violate the law.

A company can require mandatory use of English if proficiency in English is a reasonable requirement of employment.

Apparently your business caters to Spanish-speaking employees and even customers. Thus, it does not appear that your business could have an English-only requirement.

Before adopting English-only rules, most employers are advised to clearly understand the need for any restrictions and to consider all reasonable alternatives. Certainly, in Southern California with our varied work force, there is need for sensitivity in this area.

Consider advising your boss of the disunity caused by the language problem. Suggest a compromise by asking employees to speak English to each other at least on a limited basis during work hours, but not during lunches, breaks or dealings with customers.

--Don D. Sessions

Employee rights attorney

Mission Viejo

Warnings Before Termination

Q: In our company's employee handbook, it states that employment is at will and can be terminated with or without cause with 30 days' written notice. The handbook also says that poor performance will be communicated to the employee through a series of oral and written warnings.

If I were fired without these warnings, could this be a case of wrongful termination?

--G.R., Pasadena

A: From what you describe about your employee handbook, it is unclear whether you are truly an at-will employee. Under current California law, at-will employment status tends to be more shades of gray than black-and-white.

An employee is most likely to be found by the courts to be at-will if he or she has signed a specific employment-at-will agreement at the start of the employment relationship; such an agreement states that neither cause nor prior notice is required for either party to terminate the relationship; and the employer has no express policy of "progressive discipline" mandating a series of warnings or suspensions before termination.

Because the handbook contains at-will language, the 30 days' notice for termination and a provision for warnings prior to termination, a court might find that you were wrongfully terminated if you were not given warnings prior to being fired.

Note, however, that the seriousness of the misconduct would likely play a role in the court's decision.

Courts are more likely to enforce the warnings requirement for performance issues such as low productivity or poor attendance than for serious misconduct such as assault, sexual harassment, theft or drug use.

--James J. McDonald Jr.

Attorney, Fisher & Phillips

Labor law instructor, UC Irvine

*

If you have a question about an on-the-job situation, please mail it to Shop Talk, Los Angeles Times, P.O. Box 2008, Costa Mesa, CA 92626; dictate it to (714) 966-7873; or e-mail it to shoptalk@latimes.com. Include your initials and hometown. The Shop Talk column is designed to answer questions of general interest. It should not be construed as legal advice.

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