158

I just got out of a meeting with my supervisor and a member of our HR department, giving me a "formal warning" for engaging in inappropriate conduct by visiting a coworker in the hospital.

HR told me doing this was violating their rules on employee relationships. We're both men and in about the same position in different departments. I was trying to be courteous in the HR meeting while still pushing for details on why they thought it was inappropriate, and all the representative could tell me was "It's against the rules. Read the handbook".

I'm not sure how I could avoid future inappropriate situations if I can't find anything inappropriate about this one. What did I do wrong?

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    Do you and your friend work at the aforementioned hospital? Noticed your name was Erguy (ER + Guy) so though I'd throw it out there. – Frank Jan 25 at 22:21
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    That doesn't pass a sniff test. Right off the bat, preventing workers from getting together outside work violates labor law. – Harper Jan 28 at 19:10
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    What country, that is what legal system is in place? – copper.hat Jan 28 at 21:29
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    One immediate question I have is did the coworker complain? If not, how did HR find out about it? Your question doesn't say you and the coworker are friends. – Aaron Harun Jan 29 at 7:33
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    @AaronHarun raises a very good point. If you two are not friends, and he did not appreciate the visit (especially if it was unannounced) this is a very uncomfortable position you may have put your coworker in. Also something to remember, if you are not friends, it's likely to the other person you are simply "part of work". When someone is in hospital, sometimes work is the last thing a person wants to be concerned about. – Gregory Currie Jan 29 at 8:36
279

We can not tell you what you did wrong (that sounds odd to me too), but your HR person has given you the hook you need by claiming that the employee handbook forbids it. This means you can (politely) ask the HR person to point out the relevant policy, so you can review it and make sure you understand it.

If you'd thought of this during the meeting you could have said something like "oh, I didn't remember that from when I read the handbook; could you show me where so I can review it?". After the fact, your best bet is to send email (so you'll have a "paper" trail). In the email you want to convey: (1) you want to follow your employer's policies, (2) you didn't know you hadn't, so (3) you want to review to avoid future problems. Be polite, not confrontational; if it turns out the HR person is wrong, you can deal with that later. Here's a sample message, which assumes that you've checked the handbook and couldn't find the relevant part:

Dear HR person,

Thank you for letting me know about our policy against hospital visits. I'd like to review the relevant policies again so I can be sure to avoid future problems. I'm having trouble finding this in my copy of the handbook; could you please tell me where I should be looking? Thank you.

Specific followup would depend on what you learn; there are too many possibilities to plan for all of them in advance. Email like this should elicit the information you need to decide what to do next.

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    I like that phrasing, as it is polite and non-confrontative. It seems OP has already pushed for details, let's hope this email will shed some light... otherwise I'd say reading the handbook (again?) would be a good idea. – DarkCygnus Jan 24 at 19:35
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    I mean, it's most likely going to be some passage along the line of respecting co-workers boundaries or maintaining a strictly professional relationships, which is completely up to interpretation. – SpeedOfRound Jan 24 at 19:45
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    I think this is the best answer, but I am really curious if HR not being able to provide this information makes company susceptible for creating a hostile environment... It would be a groundless action against a basic humane reaction of empathy. I understand this might be out of scope of the answer, but I got personally upset, and maybe it's worth of addressing or a question of it's own. Should it be legal to punish an individual for caring for another one bearing no professional nor immediate business consequences. I completely fail to see reasoning behind such policy. Antistalking? – luk32 Jan 25 at 0:20
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    @Erguy Could you please let us know what happens? – Ovi Jan 25 at 1:40
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    @luk32 there are lots of possibilities, depending on what the details are that aren't in the question. Rather than speculate about them, I suggest the OP ask directly. Possibly it was unwanted contact (the employee wanted to keep it private), possibly there's a concern about asking a sick employee who might go out on disability to do anything work-related, possibly there's a concern about accidental disclosures of corporate secrets, possibly the HR person is mistaken... asking to see the policy should move things forward. – Monica Cellio Jan 25 at 1:42
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I think that there is a different point of view that's not being considered here, but it's difficult to know for sure with the little detail that you provided in your question.

It seems very unusual and unlikely that HR would have a policy that prohibits something as simple as a visit to a co-worker in the hospital. Obviously, I'm basing this off of my experience living and working in the United States, other cultures may have different norms for this type of behavior. So you need to respect the norms and work culture where you are.

But ultimately this sounds to me as if the person you visited may have been uncomfortable with your visit and reached out to HR or their supervisor. Perhaps they are embarrassed, or uncomfortable with interacting with you outside of the office for something that they consider to be a very personal and private matter.

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    You may well be right. It's still a totally odd move on the part of the company to treat it this way. There's nothing culturally inappropriate about this visit (on its face). – Marcin Jan 24 at 23:16
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    @Marcin HR's behavior is one of the reasons I think that this may be the case, they are stuck in the middle of something that they aren't comfortable with. – Steve Jan 24 at 23:20
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    Yep for sure, but their whole job is dealing with things that are vaguely uncomfortable. Basically I think you're right, and this is some crappy HR work. – Marcin Jan 24 at 23:23
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    And one has to wonder how HR heard about the visit. I think this is the likely scenario. – Aurast Jan 25 at 5:54
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    I can perfectly imagine a person not wanting to be seen in a diminished state in front of their coworkers and reaching out to HR asking, gently, that coworkers be asked to refrain from visiting (after the first visit), and things going downhill (for the OP) from there... – Matthieu M. Jan 25 at 16:21
34

It's not at all uncommon to have friends at work. I was once friends with a couple at my office and I would regularly visit them at their house. However, nothing you've said has indicated that you are close friends with this coworker you visited, other than the fact that you thought to visit him.

Hospital visits are a special sort of case where a person is particularly vulnerable. This person is unable to leave, and so he is at a tremendous social disadvantage when someone chooses to visit him. This isn't to say he necessarily dislikes you but sometimes uneven social environments are very discomforting to people even when the other person is being perfectly pleasant.

My guess is that the coworker informed management about the visit, as others have indicated. You may have committed a subtle sort of faux pas that's hard to pin down. I wouldn't fret about it too much since this sort of thing can happen to the best of us. I think the Interpersonal Skills stack exchange is a great place to learn more about social cues and I'd like to spend more time there myself.

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    +1, though if the coworker did not wish to be visited, then I can't quite picture how the OP even knew to visit him (e.g., how he knew what hospital to go to, what the visiting hours were, etc.). – ruakh Jan 25 at 2:12
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    @ruakh It can happen, although I doubt that's the explanation here. – Geoffrey Brent Jan 25 at 2:43
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    It is always a good idea to call in advance and check whether the patient wants a visit. Most hospital stays involve some sort of undress :-), which might make a person, especially a coworker, uncomfortable. You will likely find out a lot more about their medical condition than they might want to share. They might just be throwing up all over the place and prefer privacy for icky bodily functions. They might be exhausted by overlong other visits. Even if you are a relatively close friend, you might not always be welcome. So just check. – George M Jan 25 at 2:52
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    Fully understandable. IMHO, however, the problem's core is whether and why a humane situation such as this falls within the scope of the HR policy and related sanctions. It seems to me to be a problem of authority, more so than one of sensitivity, granted that the latter is paramount. – XavierStuvw Jan 25 at 10:53
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    @GeoffreyBrent ..... holy crap! – Lightness Races in Orbit Jan 25 at 17:29
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Their "no outside association" rule violates labor law. They may say it's about workplace romance, but it also prevents union organizing.

They're not allowed to prevent union organizing.

This is a blatant violation of 29 USC 157. Read it.

You engaged in "concerted (together) activities", "for the purpose of" "mutual aid". Yes, really.

It doesn't matter whether you discussed labor organizing, all that is required is that you might've. Anyway, your meeting certainly was about employees looking out for each other, which is the very seed of union organizing. And that isn't any of their business anyway, you don't need to justify that by telling them you're labor organizing, in fact they're specifically not allowed to even ask, or otherwise snoop on your “whatever it is that might be labor organizing".

Really. This conversation isn't allowed to even happen:

"you were fraternizing with Kalpana outside of work. Reprimand! Read the handbook."

"Kalpana and I were labor organizing".

"Oh, that's all right then, reprimand canceled, by all means carry on."

No. They don't even get to ask what you are doing, because they are not allowed to go on a "fishing expedition" in the neighborhood of anything protected, because that itself would have a chilling effect. They would have to confine their inquiries to the topic of something they could reasonably prohibit.

What to do

ASAP collect for yourself two copies of the employee manual. Write down, as soon as you can, an accurate retelling of what happened in the meeting, and go have it notarized to capture the date. Keep and treasure a copy of any written reprimand they gave you; it's worth its weight in gold.

Why? You can use it to build a case against the company for violating labor practices. First, you'll use it if you are subsequently terminated in a way which might relate to this matter: at the very least, to defend your right to collect unemployment, as they will say you are not entitled since you were terminated for cause. Second so you can contact lawyers and pursue a wrongful-termination lawsuit.

In at-will employment, they can fire you for any reason or no reason at all, but not protected reasons such as race, religion, sexual orientation or many other categories, and association with workers outside work is one of those categories. However, this is a "self-help" area of law: you hire a lawyer to go after them, and the lawyer is typically paid on contingency (free until you win, then they take 1/3). This payment method makes them a "fire and forget" weapon, you do not need to ride herd or micromanage your case. You can also seek any legal aid societies your government provides for free.

Even if they do not fire you, you may have recourse, and that is worth talking with a lawyer right now. Their reprimand was also wrongful.

  • 2
    Seems a possibility, particularly if the hospitalization in question might be work-related. However, I can think of plenty others (eg: perhaps the hospitalized employee has filed a lawsuit, and the company is worried about inside cooperation. Perhaps the visited person took the visit as pressure to get back to work, and complained. etc.). – T.E.D. Jan 28 at 19:22
12

Focusing on the reaction 'read the manual', the responsible for the underlying matters ought to be in the condition

  • to point out to the source (existence of the rule);
  • to explain the letter and spirit of it (interpretation of the rule);
  • to indicate the grounds of the infringement (relevance of the rule);
  • to justify consequences being commensurate to facts and circumstances (application of the rule);

ideally in an effortless fashion. The more competent and prepared, the more effortlessly.

The answer you received shifts the burden of the proof on you and amplifies your distress --- hence, preoccupies you and distracts you from your tasks on the job --- at least fourfold:

  • the rule is not clear (whether the rule exists and is vague; exists and has not been clarified; or does not exist at all);
  • you have to find out, lone and alone, what the probably existing, hopefully clear and surely not clarified rule is;
  • you have to build your own case for such a lack of support, clarity and explanation;
  • you have to convey this case to someone who has already proven that they feel entitled to sanction you rather curtly.

So you might well be wrong, but you cannot be asked to find out why a sanction has been imposed on you. This is a Kafka-like situation.

There must be an explainable reason why paying a courtesy/goodwill visit to, say, an hospitalized HR officer conflicts with the company's rightful interests and core values. And the HR officer needs to know and explain this.

5

If HR got orders or objectives to reduce amount of workers or to rotate them by firing some of them regularly (it's not necessarily against you), they are likely to use this kind of language.

It's known the most effective way to fire people is to warn people with some irrelevant things first.

This way the day the company fires the people HR will just have to say to the people “you know why, right?” and the people will say nothing and silently accept what his happening because the people would feel guilty and would already have accepted what is happening since days or months.

Nothing can happen if coworkers support you, but in most case coworkers just point you to save themselves.

I'm not saying it's what happening to you, but that is a real answer to that question if that is happening to you: “Why would HR say it's inappropriate that I visited a coworker in the hospital?”

Note that in what you said there is no sign HR thinks it's inappropriate, you just reported HR said it is.

There can be a real reason why it's forbidden by handbook (for example I know that some companies formally forbid workers to receive gifts from other companies, that to prevent corruption), but I see no reason why visiting a coworker at hospital would be a threat for the company at this point. Some people talked about the fact the coworker may have not liked your visit but if that's true that kind of faux-pas would be a threat for that coworker at first look it does not looks like a threat for the company. Remind the handbook is there to protect the company and remind the warning is there to protect the company.

The fact HR hides itself behind the handbook instead of going the social way (not saying it's a faux-pas in this culture etc.) and the fact HR have not explained why this is forbidden by handbook (not explaining how this forbidding would protect the company) may be a ringing bell as HR demonstrated there is no intention to help you becoming a better coworker by making you understanding better this culture neither any intention to help you becoming a better coworker by making you understanding better how to protect the company or to make the company a better one.

-5

OP note: If you understand what I am trying to say, feel free to fix/improve it!

This is an inhumane rule, thus you are by an inhumane company.

It doesn't matter, what is in their "handbooks". It is long bad that the HR thinks they are free to dictate the off-workplace, human relations of the employee.

It is your decision, how do you deal with it. I can imagine such a wage, or life situation, for which I would tolerate it. Nearly everything can be compensated, the question is only the price. But I don't think, that this compensation you would get.

But the main attitude is this: the company is inhumane and un-ethical, so if also you aren't very ethical with it, is not a big problem.

At least, you are free to use their own evil rules against them. Check that handbook, and find ways to attack back, while you hold a bridge to fly away.

Hopefully no HR co-worker will ever say you that you were "un-ethical" in any sense.

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    Hum. What the hell? – Pierre Arlaud Jan 25 at 9:00
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    If the visit was an entirely private meeting of two consenting parties with no consequences to their joint employer, how would HR learn of it? We can hardly assume that HR contacted the patient first, more likely the reverse happened. In which case HR cannot mention that communication to the OP because such a slip could hypothetically expose the coworker to some form of retaliation from the OP. – Jirka Hanika Jan 25 at 10:32
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    This is not worded the best – user53651 Jan 25 at 15:14
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    @PierreArlaud Sorry if I was not enough clear. I am trying to say, that it is an unfair, inhumane policy what the HR is doing, and I adviced the OP to check that "handbook" and to try to utilize its rules - as they were written - to fight back that inhumane behavior. Thus, essentially, I am inciting the OP against its employer, and I think it is pretty okay! If you have any better idea, how to formulate this post better, please do it. What is not clear? – Gray Sheep Jan 25 at 16:05
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    Ok let me elaborate on that. What the hell do you know about the company being inhumane? What if the colleague in the hospital told HR some guy at the office came in his private circle and that he disapproved of it (as some people have suggested could be the case)? Would it be inhumane to tell a coworker to mind his own business in that case? – Pierre Arlaud Jan 25 at 16:49
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@ ERguy - Hello. You mentioned you are of comparable professional status, albeit in different departments. To my thinking, this dissociative workplace variable probably means you, and the hospitalised chap, are not, and would not, be perceived as "co-workers" by fellow company employees or the concerned man. You did not state in your OP whether this hospital visit was to see a co-worker not a friend. I must say I would find it disturbingly odd if a person I'd seen and possibly even chatted with at my workplace were to suddenly appear at my hospital bedside to wish me a speedy recovery (or cynically check to see if there may soon be a new job opening). One expects close friends and family to undergo the chore of hospital visits (not the most convivial of places to socialise). Having a relative stranger drop by may have been excessively stressful, especially if one thinks said stranger may have undeclared ulterior motives. He may well be concerned or worry if/that you have a crush on him; one big enough to trigger a surprise hospital visit. Thus thinking you are gay and making a play where he is not. Then again, he may be gay and simply not fancy or like you or has been in a monogamous gay relationship for years. Awkward if his life-partner drops in for a visit too, where your reason for visiting is not readily understood or appreciated.

You must know from experience when a person is poorly or simply under the weather that any energy required to remain socially engaging and mannered may be extremely difficult to muster. One's social affectations are easily sloughed when in the company of close relatives or established friends. Having to wriggle into and wear one's cultural persona when all one really wants is to bask in sympathetic rays emittedthose closest to him may bathe him withis lie back and feel terribly sorry for oneself .

Then again...he may have considered your intrusion to have been stalker like.

You have ultimately to take onboard that he may not actually like you.

You should wait until he is fully recovered and back at work. There, with the proviso you're not breaking workplace rules, you can write him a considerate e-mail, letter, PiN, whatever, with which you apologise for inadvertently causing him stress and anxiety during a time when it was thoroughly unnecessary. If appropriate to your circumstances, remove any anxieties he may have about yours or his sexuality, especially if you weren't motivated by sexuality and opportunism. If you were then tell him to his face.

I haven't seen any replies from you regarding contributors comments, so hopefully you're past the indignity of being dragged over the coals for an accidental misdemeanour. In future though, think carefully before encroaching on an acquaintances personal space.

Those Workplace rules you've been warned to abide by may not be explicitly black and white. However, the greys and tact should help to guide you.

Anyway, all the best. You've not lost your job...yet!

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    What kind of weirdo would think gay people would make a pass at someone with/during a hospital visit? The most likely pervert here is D.Joe, to even think of something like that – George M Jan 28 at 21:39
  • If the employee at hospital was female, this would certainly be something that would pop into my head, and is certainly worth consideration. I think this answer, while longwinded, is certainly not deserving of downvotes. I would actually consider it stalker-like behaviour to find out where someone was in their personal time, and visit them. If they are vulnerable in a hospital bed, even more so. – Gregory Currie Jan 29 at 9:40
-8

"It's against the rules. Read the handbook".

THIS is your ANSWER.

Read the handbook and if you still have questions edit your question or ask HR.

Something in that chain of events you described violated at least one policy in said handbook (at least according to its interpretation of the company / HR).

I URGE YOU TO CONSULT A LAWYER!

Engaging in inappropriate conduct is a serious offense raising all sorts of red flags.

See what your chances are in expunging this from your documents.

If it has no merit, if HR's interpretation of the policies in the handbook was false, a lawyer will be able to help you!

EDIT: Seriously, downvoters, the issue is OP was told he violated a policy.

WITHOUT knowing that policy we CAN'T answer any differently.

Idle speculation won't help OP and aimless rants about the sense of rules encompassing private relationships with colleagues are way out of the scope.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Jan 26 at 5:32

protected by Jane S Jan 28 at 5:53

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