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I have a low-performing employee who refuses to sit at their desk. I’ve asked twice if they have issues with the chair or table — because we can make accommodations there — and employee said no.

This person sits in a common area and the rest of the employees sit at their desks and work great together, conversing during the day and being very efficient. When they need to connect with the other employee they have to walk to find them or wait for an email back, not efficient.

Is there any reason why I can’t require this person to sit at their desk?

Edit: Yes, I have asked them why, and they have refused to answer. And we are in the US. The common area is probably louder all day than their assigned desk area.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jan 8 at 1:18
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    Would the employee's choice of seating be a concern if they weren't "low-performing"? – Keith Thompson Jan 8 at 6:17
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    What kind of work is going on? Can they chat via Skype? – Carl Witthoft Jan 8 at 20:42
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    Janine00 does your company have an HR department? If you follow the accepted No there isn't. advice without contacting HR then you are potentially placing your company and yourself in legal liability. Your personal assessment of the situation by itself may not contain sufficient details to arrive at the correct action. Best wishes. – Melioratus Jan 9 at 15:33
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    "I have an employee" - to be clear, you are their manager / boss? Also, because you mention low-performing, would you consider a different course of action if they were high-performing? I think these ambiguities should be cleared up for the best possible answer. :) – corsiKa Jan 9 at 18:49
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Is there any reason why I can’t require this person to sit at their desk?

No, there isn't. They already indicated there is no problem with their workspace, therefore you can require them to use it. I'd also be talking to them about their performance. Both refusing to use their desk and low performance are getting into disciplinary action zone.

It's obviously not a valuable employee so no issue if they quit in a huff. And at best it will make them tell you what the actual issue is and you can move forwards with more information.

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    Sorry, but team work and availability is important. From the question, this is an employee who is no performing and is creating problems for other employees. The employee in question may be better off at a different employer, but the manager's obligation is to the company, not an uncooperative employee. – Julie in Austin Jan 6 at 21:10
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    @MichaelK but this isn't "Don't know, Don't care". This is "We tried many reasonable attempts to understand what was going on and you refused to cooperate, Don't care anymore". – TheGirlHasNoName Jan 6 at 23:10
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    @bruglesco No, that is not good enough. "We asked once, got no answer, did not give a hoot after that" is not good enough. If anything, not getting an answer raises even more warning-signs... so to then start ignoring the issue and just resort to strong-arming is setting themselves up to be smacked in the face with a civil suit. – MichaelK Jan 6 at 23:21
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    I'm not okay with "obviously not a valuable employee". It might be a culture fit problem. Maybe something happened between this guy and the other coworkers. The performance may get him fired but you can't just judge him on that, imho. – Pierre Arlaud Jan 7 at 0:04
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    "They already indicated there is no problem with their workspace, therefore you can require them to use it". I might be nitpicky here, but they didn't quite indicate there is no problem with their workspace. OP said he only asked about issues with the chair or table. I'd suggest OP to ensure there is no problem with their workspace overall. It could easily be a miscommunication. – Daan Jan 7 at 15:31
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Find the root cause, you are compelled to do that

TL;DR

These are warning signals. An under-performing employee, that does not want to sit close to their colleagues, and does not even dare talk about it with you? This may be a case of workplace harassment.

You are most likely compelled to act on that... legally, contractually and morally, in order to eliminate risk to your employer, to your employee, and to yourself.

Long answer to follow...

Is this really a problem?

First you need to find out in what way is this a problem? If you disregard that this rubs you all the wrong ways, what are the downsides of this person doing this?

If you find no such downsides, then there is no problem other than that it ruffles your feathers a bit, but you can put up with that, can you not?

However, no matter if you find no such downsides or if you do find them, at least one of the following two questions need to be answered.

a) What is the root cause of the behaviour?

Ask your employee again: why are they doing it that way? If they feel they do not want to answer, ask "Why do you not want to answer, is it a sensitive issue? Do you want to talk in private about it? Would you like to have a confidential representative talk to you about it and bring your wishes to us?".

The person has a reason. If you think their behaviour is a problem you need to find out if their behaviour stems from a trivial non-important reason, or if it is caused by an even bigger problem. Maybe the person has some kind of issue they are embarrassed to talk about, like a phobia for germs and one of their colleagues is being messy in a way that sets it off. Maybe there is some kind friction between them and another employee; their personal chemistry being volatile for some reason. Or — much worse and what compels you to look into this further — they might be the victim of harassment or bullying, possibly even by a supervisor. This last bit has legal consequences for the employer.

It their behaviour truly is a problem, you cannot just attack the symptom (them sitting in the common area); you need to find out why this is happening, or you might very well be squeezing your employee between a rock and a hard place, or failing to fulfil your duties towards your employer; more on that below.

Once you know the root cause, you can start working on a solution.

b) How can we work around it?

If their behaviour truly is a problem, and the root cause for this cannot be found or it is of no interest to you as long as they perform well, try to find a solution around this problem. Can they work in another part of the building? Can they telecommute? Would they consider another assignment? Tell them that this is a problem for the employer, and that a solution must be found... and tell them that you welcome hearing solutions from them.

Why not just make them go back to their place or kick them out?

Because by US federal law, employers have a duty to act against discrimination, bullying and harassment.

The employer is automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination, failure to promote or hire, and loss of wages. If the supervisor's harassment results in a hostile work environment, the employer can avoid liability only if it can prove that: 1) it reasonably tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior; and 2) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer.

The employer will be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control (e.g., independent contractors or customers on the premises), if it knew, or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate corrective action.

There is obviously something unusual going on with this employee. It may be that they are just being eccentric. But if they are not, and this is indeed a symptom of a bigger problem — such as workplace harassment, bullying or discrimination — the employer has a duty to act.

If the employer fails to act and this then comes back to haunt them in the form of a civil suit, they will be asking around. They will be asking "Did anyone notice anything out of the ordinary with this person?". Well you obviously did; you noticed something very out of the ordinary; you noticed something so much out of the ordinary that you went on The Workplace Stack Exchange to ask about it.

The question itself is now evidence that you noticed something was off with this employee.

When the court then asks the employer "Why did you fail to act on this signal?", I guarantee you that the answer "Well, anonymous people on The Workplace Stack Exchange said we did not need to but could instead just force the employee to go back to their place" will not suffice as an answer.

This means your employer will held liable by the court. This in turn means they will be looking at how they could ever end up in that fix. And that will come back to you, because I find it most likely that your job description as a manager and/or your workplace policies state that it is your duty to be on the lookout for warning signs of harassment and other things that your employer is legally required to prevent.

Summary: yes, there are reasons

You ask...

Is there any reason why I can’t require this person to sit at their desk?

Yes, there are such reasons, in that you have three very strong warning signals going off here: 1) the worker is under-performing 2) they do not want to be around colleagues 3) they do not dare talk to you about it. Something may be wrong here, and now that you have picked up on this unusual behaviour, you are then duty-bound to act.

Most likely this is a symptom of something. You need to find out what that something is, or at least find a way to work around it. It may be innocuous, but it may also be a symptom of a problem that your employer is legally required to deal with. This in turn means that your employer expects you to be on the lookout for such things and bring it up if you suspect it might be happening.

Hence, simply nagging or forcing your employee to comply without seeking to know why they do what they do, is setting yourself up for a bad ending of this story, for the employee, for your employer, and ultimately: for you.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jan 8 at 1:19
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First, if you are a manager-type person you want to get HR involved. If you aren't a formal manager -- for example, a "team lead" or "group supervisor" -- you should get someone who's formally a manager involved.

Assuming that you can justify the claimed lack of productivity or performance through some set of metrics, and the person has refused to correct their behavior, you should have a valid reason to separate ("fire") the employee -- assuming there is nothing going on otherwise. Insubordination is usually a valid cause for separation.

The reason I strongly suggest you get Human Resources involved is because employees can have issues which they do not want to share with their manager. Bullying and subtle forms of harassment come to mind, along with cultural differences which are creating friction. I've had "how to be a manager" courses in the past and "my co-worker smells bad / talks loud / make off-color jokes of non-protected classes / etc." are common topics. If the co-worker who's creating the issue is a well-established or favored employee, going to the manager with the complaint can be perceived as career limiting.

It is important to keep in mind that seemingly silly reasons for not wanting to sit in a specific location can be very real. At one employer the lighting was so bright it was seriously impacting our performance, so we removed tube lights to make our area more hospitable, but some people on the team liked the bright lights, so they wanted to sit where there was more light. At another job, my position required that I interact with a lot of employees from other departments and my office mate asked to be moved to another office -- in that case, I was moved to my own office so I could have side chairs for visitors when they came.

What's most important is that you dial-down the strong-arm techniques and as another responded said try to find the cause of this behavior. If after getting HR involved there is still no resolution you have to decide if they really are causing a problem and not simply rubbing you the wrong way. Once you have all those answers you should have either the information needed to correct the problem (for example, move to another location with better lighting, away from an A/C vent, away from a "busy" co-worker) or the documentation needed to separate the employee.

Best of luck.

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    Yes and no. Human Resources exists for a reason. We don't know why the employee is refusing to sit at their desk. Any reason we might come up with is little more than a guess. I've been a team lead and people manager for about 30 years. Over those 30 years I've had all manner of experiences personally, from all different angles. People do things for all sorts of reasons, some legitimate, some not so legitimate. And right now, we don't know which it is. – Julie in Austin Jan 8 at 1:30
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    I once asked to be moved because the guy behind me smoked a pipe and it stank and gave me headaches. It didn't bother anyone else. I got a new place and he carried on smoking (this was a few decades ago). – RedSonja Jan 8 at 7:28
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Yes, you can require they sit at their desk, if their desk is a healthy place to sit, but my first concern is that your rapport with the employee is lacking. How hard have you tried? Is there a good climate at your work place (not just from your position) ? Is the employee a junior / newer employee? Or the employee a female that comes from a culture where they aren't expected to speak up?

The root cause could be as simple as an embarrassing issue; maybe one of your other employees has a body odor or flatulence problem and your employee in question doesn't know how to deal with it without an awkward result. This is not uncommon. I dealt with it as an employee, and as a boss.

At my first job in Atlanta, I was young and fresh out of school; one of our senior developers constantly passed terrible gas. Nobody wanted to discuss it. It took me weeks to figure out who it was once I started the job. It made me nauseous; furthermore, other folks would walk through and associate the smell with our area in general.

After my 6 month contract was up, I left the job. I got a better offer, but I am not kidding, I was young and new and didn't want to deal with the awkwardness of reporting the employee, so I preferred to find a new job. I was happy to leave that baggage behind.

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    Similarly, I've seen this sort of thing from people with sensitive allergies who get stuck near people who wear heavy cologne/perfume. – bta Jan 7 at 23:27
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    It could also be the other way around: Perhaps the employee is embarrassed about a problem they themselves have. They don't want to force anybody to sit next to them for too long because it would be unpleasant for the other person - or It might be an intermittent problem that will be noticed after a longer time. – Esco Jan 9 at 3:53
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You fire them.

There is a limit to personal expression in the workplace. If the employee refuses to use tools provided and has low productivity, they gladly can work - for the competition.

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    Bad advice, DO NOT FOLLOW!!!. I am sorry but this advice could land the employer in very hot water. If the employee's behaviour is due to harassment, bullying or a hostile work environment in any way, the employer is opening themselves up to a lawsuit if they just fire the employee. Federal US law requires employers to act on such things. – MichaelK Jan 6 at 23:02
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    @MichaelK They're only liable if the employee actually responds to inquiry about the issue. This particular individual is refusing to cite reasons why he is in the common area. At some point you can fire them for performance issue if he never raises any harassment concerns. – Nelson Jan 7 at 4:33
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    I think straight up firing the individual is way too drastic of a response to the situation, but I would definitely suggest to them that disciplinary action is a possibility due to their under-performance. – Rich Jan 7 at 14:49
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    @Tombo If you click on the answerer's username you will see the reason why. – MichaelK Jan 8 at 9:15
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    @Nelson Avoiding liability for one issue by seeking out alternative reasons to fire someone can be legal, but that's generally considered evil and disingenuous. If their performance is a problem, then follow the procedure for that problem. Don't dismiss someone because you didn't like something about them, and then exclaim it's for a separate reason, if that reason never boldly presented itself. Especially if you have typical remedies for performance like performance improvement plans, review, or other procedures. Then it'll be immediately apparent that this is an excuse to avoid liability. – The Anathema Jan 8 at 18:07
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It is not at all sure that communication makes for efficiency. Some people get easily distracted by other people conversing and it could clearly be a cause for lower performance in these individuals.

  • Let us continue this discussion in chat. – MichaelK Jan 10 at 9:22
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    @MichaelK : exactly, that's what I mean. Thanks for proving my point. – mathreadler Jan 10 at 9:23
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    @MichaelK The question asks "Is there any reason why I can’t require this person to sit at their desk?" This answer provides a possible reason. I don't see why it's not an answer. Actually, I think it's similar to yours. I gave both upvotes. – scaaahu Jan 10 at 9:56
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    @scaaahu This still does not answer the question because the question is whether they can, not whether they should. I am saying that OP outright cannot just force the employee to sit at their desk without looking closer into this rather unusual behaviour. First OP must establish that this behaviour actually is problematic, and second — no matter if it is problematic or not — the behaviour is a big red flag that something might be wrong at the workplace, a warning so strong it compels them to look into this. – MichaelK Jan 10 at 10:19
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    @mathreadler I suggest you take a look at the Code of Conduct before you — like another participant on this particular page — earn yourself some time in the time-out box. Most important: "Be kind and friendly" and "Be clear and constructive when giving feedback, and be open when receiving it." are two points you seem to be missing. – MichaelK Jan 10 at 12:58
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Firing a person would be the easiest part, but finding a replacement will be difficult and time taking.

Your decisions could be based on multiple factors.

  1. If he is a long term employee - You might want to check with him reason for his poor performance. He might be going through a rough time in his life and sitting at common area might help him find time to deal with his personal issues.

  2. If he is a new joinee - Is he finding it difficult to interact with his team members? Does he have the correct skill set for the domain he work on?

  3. Some people use common area to prepare for interviews.

A working lunch with the employee might be helpful in your situation.

If nothing helps, finding a replacement for the employee would be the wisest option.

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    If the person do not do anything anyway, do you really need a replacement? – Bent Jan 6 at 19:04
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    This might depends on the domain. In a software industry, the task would be assigned among team members. Poor performance from one can slip the schedule or overload other members. A manager would definitely look for replacement and would try to close the open position asap. I am not sure how the other industry works. My comment was based on my experience working on multiples MNC's and having coming across similar situations in my career. – Ajeeshklr Jan 6 at 20:00
  • @Ajeeshklr In software too, if the company is used to the low performer, getting rid of them should have no effect. If others are already compensating for the low performer, then that's already a problem regardless of whether or not the low performer is fired – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 6 at 20:25
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    One of the things to consider with low-performers is the net impact to the entire group. I had a co-worker I supervised who was such a drag on the =entire= department that getting rid of him improved productivity. This doesn't mean he did no work, but it did mean that after he was terminated everyone else was able to pick up his work using the time which was saved not dealing with him. – Julie in Austin Jan 6 at 21:33

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