Holding the Bag–Part 2
Eve carefully removed the plastic bag from the seat rim. Although the bag had nearly two cups of liquid, she had room to twist around the top of the bag and tie it securely into several knots. Next, she scouted around the cabin and found another plastic bag. She placed her bag inside the empty one, tying off the outer bag as well.
Eve knew that a consultant would be waiting at the airport to meet her. The last thing she wanted to do was greet him with one hand while holding a bag of urine in the other. So, ever the resourceful professional, she emptied some of the folders from her briefcase and tucked her extra bag inside. When she arrived at the airport, she greeted the consultant with a smile and told him she needed to make a quick trip to the rest room. There she dumped her extra baggage, washed her hands, and went on her way.
When Eve returned to corporate, she informed her boss, John Jones, that she would no longer be flying on the corporate plane. "Unless you arrange to have more private rest room facilities, I feel that I need to fly on a commercial carrier."
"That would be highly inconvenient, uneconomical, and inefficient. You know that some of the towns where we have sites are not accessible by commercial carrier. You'd have to fly to a major city and rent a car. That would not only add to the cost, but probably take an extra day of travel time," John pointed out.
"You knew when you took this job that your key responsibilities required travel out in the field," John reminded her. "If you can't do the job, we'll have to transfer you to another position. And, you realize, we might have to cut your pay if we can't find an equivalent position."
"We'll see about that," Eve said. Then she went to human resources to plead her case.
The human resources department knew that the company was in the process of buying a new plane with private rest room facilities. They expected delivery of the aircraft within the next six months. Consequently, they suggested to John that he accommodate Eve in the interim, since the problem would go away.
He agreed and Eve was satisfied.
In the words of Bill Clinton, "We feel your pain." As in broader societal issues, the resolution of this case is based on the company's willingness and ability to do something about it. Most enlightened employers frequently make a conscientious effort to accommodate the individual and personal needs of their employees. We feel John, her supervisor, took a very narrow view of the problems.
Virtually all human resources executives have made exceptions or accommodations for one or more employees. They have often gone beyond the legal requirements of accommodating employees who have temporary or permanent disabilities. Such provisions may include helping to arrange for or subsidize the cost of evening or weekend child care when the employee's job requires him or her to be out of town. Alternatively, management may reduce the frequency of travel by combining trips, teleconferencing, and/or bringing the "client" in rather than going to the client. Another example is when an employer pays for first-class seating on commercial flights because the employee's size makes it uncomfortable or impossible to ride in coach. A company may also arrange for travel by car or train due to an employee's fear of flying. Additionally, a company may buy and install special ventilation equipment based on a person's unusual sensitivity to common chemicals in the office air. Further accommodations may include work-at-home and job-sharing arrangements. The list is as long as it is varied.
As companies decide how to deal with matters of accommodation, it is prudent to consider some key factors. First, is the request reasonable or outlandish? For example, we feel it would be unreasonable for Eve to request separate rest room facilities. The unisex bathroom is a standard in transportation and at many special events.
Second, what are the cost-benefit tradeoffs of making the accommodation? In Eve's case, the potential "benefit" is keeping a competent, female engineer happy and productive.
Next, the company must consider the potential precedents set by the accommodation. Would other employees view the accommodation as fair and reasonable, or simply as favoritism and "oiling the squeaky wheel?" Also, are there other available alternatives? In this case, the options should not have been limited to either Eve's flying commercial carrier or suffering like everybody else. Instead, these considerations should have been expanded to such alternatives as:
♦ Rearranging work and travel schedules; combining trips to reduce frequency of required travel
♦ Repairing or replacing the plane's privacy screens with something more effective
♦ Strategically placing rented "porta-potties" at those remote landing strips frequented by the company aircraft
♦ Allowing Eve to pay for some of the extra cost associated with commercial air travel
♦ Encouraging Eve and others to speak up when "nature calls," while displaying a sincere willingness to accommodate the specific situation, such as a layover at a stop for an extra few moments.
By carefully considering all the options in these and similar cases, human resource executives and management have an opportunity to maintain or increase productivity as well as demonstrate excellent employee relations.
This story illustrates the importance of employers knowing that they have rights too. As long as the company did not discriminate against Eve because of her gender and did not subject her to disparate treatment, it is unclear what claim she could have against the company. The pilot of the plane could have just as easily been a woman, and the modest manager could have been a man.
"Modesty" generally will not rise to the level of a protected disability. Thus, we doubt the company had any legal duty to accommodate Eve. If we had been consulted by a client regarding this problem, we would have suggested that Eve deal with the inconvenience and save expenses until the new company plane was available. An employer has a legitimate interest in minimizing its travel expenses and maximizing the productive time of its employees.
While John might benefit from sensitivity training to avoid the possibility of claims from other aggrieved employees, in this situation, if he carried through with his plans to transfer Eve to another position due to her unwillingness to abide by standard company travel policies, we doubt the company would have liability.