When it comes to HR, don't quit your day job, Miss Manners.

Was that impolite?

Miss Manners (or her kids, who are doing Judith Martin's old column much of the time) have weighed in on some employment law issues lately.

They really need to stick to advising their audience to send prompt thank-you notes on cream-colored paper, handwritten in black or blue-black ink.

Gentle Readers of this blog, please do not take your employment law advice from Miss Manners. Here's the proof: 

EXHIBIT A: Is it rude to have your camera off during a videoconference?

I was set off initially by a column from a letter writer who wanted to require her co-workers to always be on camera during videoconferences. (Link may not work if you don't have a paid subscription to the Washington Post.) The writer said that she had a hearing impairment and that it was easier for her to understand what people were saying if she could see their faces and read their lips.

I have been known to leave my camera off during some videoconferences. Usually it's because I'm not presentable at the time of the call -- for example, when a call is scheduled right after I have gone for my exercise walk and it's mid-July in the Carolinas and I have not yet reached the point at which a shower will "take." (My fellow participants would thank me for my discretion if they knew what they would have had to look at.) Even when I am presentable, I turn it off if a critical mass of participants have their cameras off, just because it feels weird to be on camera when nobody else is. Otherwise, I use my camera. But it is never a big deal to me if the person I'm talking with leaves their camera off. 

THAT SAID . . . I am also not hearing impaired, and until I read this column, I had not thought about the value to a person with a hearing impairment of being able to see the other conferees. If I knew a caller needed video (versus just preferring it), I would be happy to make the "reasonable accommodation" of leaving my camera on. (Although once the caller saw me post-exercise, she might decide that email was the way to go.)

Anyway, before I got to Miss Manners' answer, I was thinking, "Miss Manners is probably going to tell the LW to explain her need to the people on the call -- and if she isn't comfortable doing that, to let HR know about it and work with her on an appropriate reasonable accommodation without singling her out. Yeah, that's the ticket."

But that wasn't Miss Manners' advice. First she said the LW should clearly communicate which meetings required on-camera presence and which did not. OK. Then she said some people might not come on camera even after being asked to do so. True. Then she said that people should explain why they were off camera but that it was "disrespectful" for someone to explain that they were off camera because "I do not wish for you to see me in curlers."

(I guess people still wear curlers?)

No mention of HR. No mention of the Americans with Disabilities Act. No mention by LW or Miss Manners of the closed caption feature in videoconferencing, although a slew of commenters pointed that out. And I guess I am a rude and disrespectful person because I have just confessed to you all that I sometimes stay off camera because I look like a mess.

EXHIBIT B: How do I deal with a co-worker whose perfume gives me asthma attacks and seizures?

It took me a few days to get over my trauma from that videoconferencing column, and almost as soon as I had recovered, Miss Manners came out with another one. This time the LW, who worked in a mental health facility, had asthma that was triggered by strong fragrances. She was fine with most of her co-workers and the patients, but there was one therapist who wore strong, obnoxious, heavy perfume that the LW was afraid was going to cause her to have an asthma attack, which sometimes in turn caused her to have seizures. In addition, the LW had a visual impairment and so could not always see the therapist coming. Her "aroma" preceded her, if you catch my drift. LW wanted to know what to do.

I was like, "If you have asthma that is triggered by fragrances, get a doctor's note, and then go meet with HR and explain the situation and give them the note. You are probably entitled to a reasonable accommodation under the ADA, which might include having HR tell this therapist to lay off the heavy perfume. And since this is an etiquette column, HR should tell the therapist, 'Please lay off the heavy perfume.'"

Then I was like, "Better yet, HR could adopt a no-fragrance policy, and then they could resolve the LW's problem without embarrassing the therapist! Yeah!"

No. Miss Manners actually advised the LW to talk directly to the therapist (Bad Advice No. 1) and to lie to the therapist (Bad Advice No. 2). She said to tell the therapist that patients had complained about her perfume. Then, Miss Manners actually said, "This will make it a question of patient care -- and not of her potentially putting you in the hospital."

OK, Miss Manners, and then LW gets fired after someone in authority finds out that she was reporting bogus complaints from mental health patients. Great solution! Why didn't I think of that?

It gets worse. Then she said,

Miss Manners understands that this technique will not help people who do not have patients, customers or other innocent people to “target” in this way. But the basic idea is to shift the blame from the perfume to the reaction. . . .

So, Miss Manners admits that she is advising LW to "target" "innocent people" rather than just go to HR and explain the medical condition and the sensitivity, and request an accommodation. What the heck?

One ray of sunshine: The commenters. Many mentioned the ADA, reasonable accommodation, HR, and what a terrible idea it was to lie about complaints from patients (or "customers or other innocent people"). Bless 'em.

Miss Manners, if you'll stop giving employment law advice, I'll stop giving advice about how to use a dessert fork. 

Robin Shea has 30 years' experience in employment litigation, including Title VII and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, the Americans with Disabilities Act (including the Amendments Act). 
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