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Dec 14

No. 7: Management: Duty To Question Bizarre Behavior?

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Duty To Question Bizarre Behavior?

Reader Question: One of my lab technicians has begun talking to himself and has become very argumentative. Several of my staff have confided they are worried he is developing a mental disorder--and thus we could be heading for some episode of "workplace violence". As PI and his supervisor, may I legally interview him about these personality changes? Should I? If I refer the matter to our institute's Human Resources department, could the technician accuse me of "defamation of character"? Do I have any duty to do something or anything?

Expert Comments:

As PIs, you are “management” and a representative of the employer (institution). You may, and should, interview the employee as soon as possible and make contemporaneous notes of the conversation. The interview is predicated on the employee’s ability to conduct/complete the essential functions of his job and the work related concerns/complaints expressed by other employees. You have a legitimate concern about the welfare of all employees and the safe and efficient operation of the work site.

Your interview questions need to be focused on the effects his recent behaviors are having on others and the impact to the work environment. Conduct the interview discreetly and treat the content as confidential to the extent you are able. It will help you if the questions are written out in advance as an aid in order to keep on track. If there is an “employee assistance program”, the employee should be urged to explore that benefit. Unless you are licensed and qualified to do so, refrain from the diagnosis of a “mental disorder” -- leave that to the professionals in the field.

Referring the matter to human resource department is appropriate and the next logical step. In fact, coordinate your efforts with HR. “Defamation” involves negative statements about a person that are generally false and result in some damage to the person. These statements must be transmitted to another individual. In this situation, your referral of the matter to HR is based upon work-related concerns about the individual’s behaviors and its disruptive effect on the work environment; not a false accusation. Thus, I do not see “defamation” is taking place.

An involuntary leave of absence may also be considered, but that action will potentially lead to an adversarial confrontation and should not be done without consultation with the appropriate individuals in your organization who deal with significant personnel issues. If the employee in question has made or makes overt threats of physical harm to himself or others, contact local law enforcement immediately.
If the complaining employees are female and express apprehension because of aggressive or offensive conduct in the workplace by the male lab technician, you may have the beginning of a sexual harassment charge. Employers have an obligation to investigate and, if such actions are occurring, to remediate such employee behavior. If you choose not to act, you and the employer could be accused of “deliberate indifference” to the claims of a hostile work environment. Such inaction could be costly.

In most employment situations, it is illegal to take an adverse employment action solely on the basis of an individual’s physical or emotional condition (real or perceived). However, behaviors that negatively impact the employer’s operation can and must be addressed.

Comments by G. Frederick Compton, Jr., JD, Partner, Roetzel & Andress Law Firm. He concentrates his practice in the area of Labor and Employment.

The foregoing has been legal information only and should not be considered legal advice on a specific issue. For legal advice, the reader should contact legal counsel of his or her choice.

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Comments (11)
written by kgoodrick, December 09, 2009
1. Privately consult your Employee Assistance Program (EAP) or a psychiatrist or psychologist to help determine if this employee poses any danger. 2. Insofar as his behavior seems to be affecting productivity, you should refer him to the EAP. Mention only his behavior- don't try diagnosis. 3. If he refuses EAP referral, commence normal disciplinary actions for insubordination, keeping in mind violence potential 4. EAP should report compliance with treatment, and needed accommodations under Am Disabilities Act, but not diagnosis
written by Ambivalent, December 09, 2009
Scientists and lab workers are famous for being eccentric, even slobs. Almost a badge of honor. But after the Yale lab murder and the Harvard coffee poisoning, should such "fringe" behavior be as tolerated? Do you feel safe?
written by anon, December 09, 2009
Is he arguing with himself or others?
written by duffy, December 10, 2009
I would start by talking to the person myself. If you are not comfortable with this that should be one huge red flag that there is a major problem, not just an ""eccentric personality"". Refer him to Human Resources and let them take over. That is their job. When done privately there can be no claim of defamation of character. As someone who has had to work in an environment where there was a very disturbed, almost violent co-worker when I was a student I beg you to do something. The workplace should be a safe place to be.
written by Fellow PI, December 15, 2009
As an MD and a scientist, I am struck by the lack of concern in the preceding discussion for the individual lab tech. Diagnosis aside, someone who exhibits a personality change is clearly suffering, be it from a psychiatric or a neurological disorder. Yes, there are legal issues and safety issues involved, but show some compassion. Approach the employee as a troubled human being whose behavior has caused you to worry about him. A little caring will go a lot further than an approach that is perceived as an accusation of ineptitude and an attack on his character. While human resources should handle the evaluation and disciplinary issues, I think you will be most effective as an employer if you approach your troubled employee as a hurting person who needs caring and human dignity. Ask yourself how you would approach this problem if he suddenly developed an obvious physical impairment.
written by Fellow Scientist, December 15, 2009
I do share some of Fellow PI's concerns. However, this is both a HR issue as well as a PI issue. Both need to work collectively to resolve what could be a dangerous development in the lab environment. The comments by MAW are also germaine to general concerns regarding supervision and difficult to manage staff and I find myself agreeing with MAW. You may well approach difficult co-workers with every good intention, but should there be any heightened sensitivity or passive grievance by the researcher being challenged or receiving close supervision, they can make it difficult for the PI by deliberately making exaggerated claims or rumors and loose comment - this also gets at the issue of the maturity of the person and emotional state of mind. Perhaps the best course of action in such cases is to privately meet with the person in a small team environment to prevent such damage to the PI and protect the person who is in difficulty and provide that person the best case and supervision. I would recommend, the PI, the subject under scutiny, a HR representative and another independent person not known to either the PI or the subject but appointed by HR as an independent objective witness. Such things are always sensitive and one needs to protect both sides to the argument, after all, careers are at stake and everyone is innocent unless proven guilty.
written by Been There, Done That, December 15, 2009
After weathering an EEOC charge brought against me and an assault and battery charge brought against the technician in the lab next to mine (both eventually dismissed for lack of any bases) by one of my technicians who developed some sort of mental disorder, I strongly encourage you to contact your HR people for advice. Simply "talking to" this individual privately may do more to aggravate the situation than solve the problem. The HR staff in any decent sized organization has experience which can be invaluable to you, your staff and students. While compassion for the individual with the problem is important, the reality of possible mental disorder should not be ignored.
written by Eastwood, December 16, 2009
Why has nobody mentioned keeping a loaded gun in a locked drawer, "just in case" thngs deteriorate and you need immediate protection? Anybody remember Virginia Tech?
written by Texas Ranger, December 25, 2009
Waited with wonder for somebody to reply to ""Gun"" suggstion above. Silence is deafening.Well, sometimes a memo to "HR" just doesn't work, esp if the knives are already out. What about other improviso measures to protect your colleagues right there in your lab, such as throwing nitric acid, or even commandering a scalpel from frog dissection?. OK, it's a bit distasteful, but would you rather be DEAD???? Let's get real.
written by Right Wing, December 25, 2009
To borrow a phrase from the gendarmes: "I'd rather be judged by 12 than caried by six". Or do PIs live on anothr planet?
written by mattyq, December 29, 2009
Let me tell you about a similar situation, but with a different perspective. While working as a post doc, a new graduate student started a rotation in my PI's lab. This graduate student was one of those busy bodies, always gossiping about others. She approached me in confidence for advice about whether she should speak to her program chair about how other grad students in her class were not attending mandatory seminars. She felt slighted because she was making every effort to attend and she thought it unfair that others were not held accountable. This should have been a warning to me about her character but I wasn't savvy enough to read between the lines. I basically told her that she had every right to speak to her program chair but forwarned her that if her classmates found out what she did she would risk alienating herself from them. As a senior post doc in the lab, many other grad students and technicians would confide in me their feelings. I felt good that others sought my advice and that many trusted and valued my opinion. Basically, I was a confidant for so many. In time, many of these individuals began to divulge their unhappiness with the lab and the general weak leadership of the PI. I always encouraged these people to speak with the PI but obviously, none dared to for fear of retribution. Many of these conversations would take place in a social setting over cocktails, etc. On a couple of occasions, we included the aforementioned graduate student in an attempt to include her in these social settings. Long story short, this grad student went to the PI and informed her that many in the lab were disgruntled and that I was the ring leader for promoting dissention among others. I was completely blind-sided when I found out that the PI began secretly having meetings with individuals to determine if I was undermining the workplace. I thought I was giving guidance and support to some very unhappy staff by making them aware that they should speak to the PI. The problem graduate student percieved something altogether different. Things got really bad and I was informed that my contract would not be renewed. In hindsight, I now see that I had some very legal grounds to stand on and that I should have defended myself more effectively against the way the PI handled the situation. I was never once asked about the situation until my meeting informing me that I would no longer have a position in the lab. The fact that I was informed by others in the lab that they had been asked for a clandestine meeting to discuss my interactions with them OUTSIDE OF WORK amounted to a witch hunt. In the end, I have never been able to shake off the ordeal and have not been able to rely on this investigator for a reference or an opportunity to tell my side of the story and I have left academia. I had a promising future, including a very well scored K award application that was encouraged by the NIH study section for re-submission. But the PI made my "reputation" well-known to other investigators in our very narrow field of interest and a lack of support from others in this circle promulgated my exit from research in utter frustration. This ordeal consisted of slander, underhanded tactics and indifference to my legal rights as an employee. I didn't have the knowledge then of what memchanisms were in place for my protection. Others in similar situations, however, may be more savvy than I was. Be forwarned. The tables can be turned ON YOU. If I could, I would go back and seek legal action against this investigator, for I have lost my chance for a career in neuroscience research. My advice is to seek HR assistance.

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