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I work for a company that offers education and training services on a 1:1 basis. We pair an instructor with a customer for the duration of a training segment which could last for many months. Our instructors spend hours at a time with a customer and small interruptions or distractions can significantly degrade the quality of instruction and customer's experience.

We hired an instructor from Turkey who is claiming that we are culturally discriminating against him. This instructor has gone through our training program to achieve his certificates and ratings to be an instructor so he has seen firsthand how instructors are supposed to behave.

We have asked that our instructors avoid taking phone calls, taking unrelated facetime video chats, and eating lunch in front of customers (if possible). All instructors are hourly and can dictate their own schedules.

This employee claims that our policies culturally discriminate against him. Are our policies unreasonable?

  • Much easier if you just say what culture, helpful if you mention your locale as well, over here we'd just laugh at him and terminate his employment. Your policies seem reasonable to me without more context – Kilisi Sep 30 '18 at 15:10
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    When I was in the army and the higher army officer asked us not to answer calls during an event, one answered my wife is pregnant and that he would be answering, and the officer did not answer back. You cannot deny somebody answering phone calls when this does not affect his quality of work and when he keeps those phone calls duration being reasonable (see at as a break as well). If it is like a seminar with a projector, then obviously he should be waiting and answer on extreme emergencies only. I agree with the food issue, it is not polite chewing next to the customer. – Ge Peace Sep 30 '18 at 15:47
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    Emergency calls are fine, of course. He is here for at least another year to build experience before moving on to his next career step. He may have arrangements to make but he can also schedule himself to take care of that on his own time. – acpilot Sep 30 '18 at 16:13
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    I would assign him 10 mins paid break time every two hours of training. If his work includes a laptop / screen, he needs that break to relax his eyes as well. During the same time he can make those phone calls – Ge Peace Sep 30 '18 at 16:25
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    On what grounds exactly does this person claim the conduct rules are discriminatory? – Erik Sep 30 '18 at 18:15
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(Not legal advice!)

In order for it to possibly be cultural discrimination, somebody would need to identify issues specific to his culture that make your rules disproportionately hard on him. Examples of disciminatory rules would include:

  • A rule requiring the employee to be present and working during times that conflict with religious observances.

  • A rule forbidding bathroom breaks for several hours, applied to somebody with a medical need to go more often.

  • A rule requiring instructors to stand during presentations, applied to somebody with a mobility or endurance issue.

  • A rule restricting clothing or jewelry (that does not interfere with performance of job duties).

In a comment you said that, when asked how your rules are culturally discriminatory, he said "on the grounds that he thinks it is". That's not how discrimination works. Since he is claiming discrimination, the burden is on him to say how it is discriminatory. Is there something about his culture that requires constant availability for incoming calls or Facetime chats? It sounds to me like he finds some of your rules personally inconvenient, which is a different matter.

Because you said you want to keep him, I suggest you ask him for clarification in a way that de-escalates. Something like this:

We certainly don't intend to discriminate, and our policy is to make reasonable accommodations as needed. Please help me understand -- what cultural issues do we need to be aware of so we can find a solution that works for everybody? I didn't know the Turkish culture had special considerations about phone calls (or whatever issue you're discussing). Or did you just mean that you personally object to these rules and I misunderstood what you said about a cultural issue?

That last sentence is there to give him a way to save face once he realizes that you're not buying his claim without some supporting information.

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    That is exactly what I am thinking, too. My day job is as a Negotiator for a fortune 50 so I've become reasonably well versed in corporatespeak and de-escalation. Porting some of those tactics to this small business environment will probably solve the issue. I'm also conducting policy alignment training with the entire customer-facing staff to avoid calling out one or two people directly. I suspect that our guy just learned a new buzzword and is trying it out. – acpilot Sep 30 '18 at 18:52
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    None of your examples discriminate based on culture. – nvoigt Oct 1 '18 at 6:19
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    @nvoigt I added one. Cultural discrimination that isn't also something else is hard, because culture usually just isn't relevant. (If the question were about harassment that would be different.) – Monica Cellio Oct 2 '18 at 2:24
  • @nvoigt In the US at least, it is perfectly legal and allowed to discriminate on culture alone. That's exactly what it means when you don't hire someone because they aren't a "good fit". The problem is when that cultural difference is actually do to some other protected class, like religion or race. So far the OP's employee has not given any indication that that is the case. – David K Oct 2 '18 at 12:28
  • Fortunately, the question doesn't ask whether it's legal (and also doesn't say where the OP is from). Companies sometimes have policies against discrimination on grounds they choose, even if no law compels them to do so. – Monica Cellio Oct 2 '18 at 13:44
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We have asked that our instructors avoid taking phone calls, taking unrelated facetime video chats, and eating lunch in front of customers (if possible).

So to sum it up, you asked them to work when they are on your payroll. That is not unreasonable, that would be normal.

This employee claims that our policies culturally discriminate against him.

That's nonsense on multiple levels. One, culture is neither in the civil rights act (US) nor in the EU directive. Even if you could discriminate based on culture, it would be legal in most countries I would expect a Turkish person to migrate and work in. Second, the things you listed have nothing to do with culture. There is no cultural requirement to eat food in front of others. There certainly is no requirement to be on the phone or Facetime privately. What culture would that be, affordable mobile phones are not even 20 years old! Even if it was meant to say ethnicity instead of culture, there is no region in Turkey (or probably even the world) where the above applies.

So there are two issues here. Your employee is unhappy and your employee is making legal, unbased threats.

You can negotiate their happiness level. Maybe they misunderstood the rules. Can all their problems be fixed by taking a scheduled break at noon, having lunch and making their phonecalls? Maybe they don't know that. Maybe they can work half days at first until all their movement paperwork is settled? I'm sure a solution can be found based on the rules you have set, they sounded reasonable.

The other problem might need more attention: why are they threatening you? Why not cooperate and ask others how they fit in their schedule? That person certainly is not the only one with a "life". You need to make sure that next time they ask for exceptions if they have a problem, not threaten you with legal wordings they don't (seem) to properly understand themselves. No matter how good an instructor the person might be, you need people to cooperate and work together.

  • Only reason I can think is that in turkish culture taking calls is more important but "mum will complain if I don't answer her" is not a reason. – Borgh Oct 2 '18 at 12:06

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