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A new coworker just started in our office, and on her first day she told us:

  1. No one can speak to her. Communication needs to be done over email only.
  2. No one can speak in the room we work in. There's 4 of us working in one big room, and every time someone says something to someone else, whether it's work-related or not, she says "can you keep it down?"
  3. She needs the lights to be off and the door to be closed and locked. This is especially uncomfortable for me as working in the dark is straining my eyes and I'm not comfortable being closed up in the room. I also feel like it's a "bad look" for two people to emerge from a closed/locked room together. I'm not going to explain what I mean by this, don't worry about it if you don't understand.

So far I and my co-workers have let her have this because we didn't want to start off on the wrong foot, but these feel like unreasonable demands to be making. How should I/we go about pushing back against this?

Location is NY, USA. No, there's no other office any of us can move to, and remote working isn't permitted.

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    Comments are not for extended discussion; this conversation has been moved to chat. – Jane S Aug 31 at 23:59
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    Hahahaha. Just ignore her. And keep ignoring her. I promise it will work eventually. – only_pro Sep 16 at 21:34

15 Answers 15

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If this is a case of the company accommodating a disability, neither you nor the company should be "required" to obey the employee's specific requests.

According to the NY laws (i.e. the New York State Human Rights Law, the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, and the Americans With Disabilities Act), employers are expected to provide "reasonable accommodation" such that a disabled employee can work, but not if it impairs the company or other employees.

An accommodation is reasonable if it removes or mitigates the barriers to performance caused by the individual's impairment, and does not cause undue hardship to the employer.

The rule against talking impairs communication. Furthermore, shutting off the lights and locking the doors can lead to unsafe working conditions, or at the very least a fire hazard. Thus the employee's demands would impact the employer, so this likely falls into the "undue hardship" clause.

Accommodations that pose an "undue hardship" on the employer will not be required.

If is not a case of accommodating a disability, then the requests are unreasonable, and the company should not comply. Otherwise, these demands could be a liability that detriments your workplace.

Either way, you should take this issue to HR immediately.

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    If my office were dark and completely silent, I would find myself accidentally napping. A lot. – Lindsey D Aug 31 at 5:59
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    I agree with this answer, except that I'd first go to the immediate manager/boss. In my experience (which is outside the US, so YMMV a lot), the direct manager has more direct control over the work atmosphere (except for company-wide policies and such), so they would be better suited to find a solution that works for everyone. Not that I think HR is a bad idea, just that the manager can usually find better solutions faster, and if that fails you just go to HR. – Blueriver Sep 1 at 2:23
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    @Blueriver some of the things might violate legal requirements like OSHA (e.g. lights off, locked door) so it is better to get HR involved as soon as possible to reinforce that instead of the manager – Juliana Karasawa Souza Sep 2 at 14:14
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as working in the dark is straining my eyes and I'm not comfortable being closed up in the room.

If something at workplace impacts your health or wellness, you must escalate to your manager, right away.

She needs the lights to be off and the door to be closed and locked

This is recipe for disaster if one day she were to make an accusation against any/all of you. Do not accept the demands in any way, keep the lights on, doors open.

Nobody knows what happens behind closed doors, and in the worst case, it's her word against yours.

How should I/we go about pushing back against this?

Let your manager, HR handle this. Make sure all three of you coworkers go to the manager together to explain the situation and your concerns to them, so that it doesn't look like one guy bitterly complaining.

Edit / PS: I've used the word accusation throughout, though some commenters have used it to specifically mean one type of harassment. IMO, it doesn't have to be that. A closed door policy, unless mandated by HR, removes the openness of environment, which makes it hard to prove or disprove anything.

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    @GregMartin I've used only the word accusation throughout, though some of the commenters have used it to specifically mean one type of harassment. IMO, it doesn't have to be that. A closed door policy, unless mandated by HR, removes the openness of environment, which makes it hard to prove or disprove anything. In any case, if you think its against workplace.se policies / perpetuates some negative connotations, feel free to flag it for moderator attention. – mu 無 Sep 1 at 18:55
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    There are a bazillion reasons why the requirements from this coworker are unreasonable, but tbh I don't think this paranoia about "accusations" is a good one. In the first place there isn't any indication from the question that she is out to get her coworkers in any way. Second, if they really wanted to frame you for something inappropriate, all they would have to do is find a time when you two happened to be the only people in the room and it's the exact same situation. – aquirdturtle Sep 2 at 3:05
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    @aquirdturtle irrelevant. It's a potential risk for the coworkers and the company, and should thus be taken into consideration. – jwenting Sep 2 at 3:33
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    @aquirdturtle Maybe think of it less as "accusations" and framing for something inappropriate, and more just how it appears to the rest of the office. In a typical office (no cash handling rooms or secure lab facilities or something), "I saw the two of them sitting in a dark room with the door locked" can come across as extremely strange if not scandalous to other co-workers. You don't have to be worried the co-worker will make any sort of accusation to prefer to not be in that situation. – Zach Lipton Sep 2 at 7:31
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You should say, "No, this is the way we work, here."

You should get your manager and HR involved IMMEDIATELY.

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    As thursdaysgeek says, it's wise to check that HR hasn't agreed to an accommodation for some sort of disabilitybefore making a definitive "no". But otherwise a good answer. – DJClayworth Aug 30 at 17:30
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    @DJClayworth whatever, if it is the HR that have choosen those accomodations they did it wrong aniway. So I'm not sure to agree. – Walfrat Sep 2 at 6:41
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    @DJClayworth There's no way any HR would agree to "lights off, locked door" if there are other people in the room without consulting them first. – freedomn-m Sep 2 at 8:47
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    I agree, but it's still wise to talk to HR first. – DJClayworth Sep 2 at 14:17
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As someone with a disability, who has needed accommodations...I have never gone to coworkers on my first day (or any day) and just cranked out a list of my requirements with a do it or else attitude. I see others have mentioned HR and supervisors, and frankly it would be her responsibility to have discussed with managers/HR her required accommodations and yes, they do have to be reasonable.

Usually if a disability is obvious (which it doesn’t sound like hers is) accommodations would be discussed during the interview process, especially if the interviewer has decided to hire. And usually a tour of the work area and any other locations she may be likely to spend time would occur so as to be able to determine in advance if any accommodations are needed. They aren’t always. If that didn’t happen, then it would have occurred on her first day.

Since none of those things happened, then it is my belief that this person does not have any disabilities and these requested “accommodations” are really just a list of crap she wants. She probably goes home every night laughing with evil glee at getting away with it.

So go to your manager and HR and speak up. She should NOT have gone directly to you and your coworkers with her “demands” of accommodations. That is NOT how it is done. Please stop beating yourself up. Remember just because someone is disabled, doesn’t mean they aren’t an a*hole. And someone can pretend to be disabled to get what they want, doesn’t make it true.
edit: My point is she is not disabled, and yes there are people out there who pretend to be, I’m not saying she is pretending to be, just that she is not disabled.

BOTTOM LINE: She showed up on day 1 with this list of demands, and you all just followed them without question. Question them. Talk to your manager, talk to HR. And then go ahead and unlock the door, talk, turn on the lights you need. If she complains - just smile and say that you are just doing your job, and she can talk to the manager.

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    Note that the OP hasn't used any terms like "accommodation" or "disability"; rather, those came up because some answerers and commenters suggested that maybe these are accommodations that the company has agreed to (and for some reason not told the OP about). So I think it's quite a leap to suggest that she's feigning a disability. – ruakh Aug 31 at 6:08
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    @ruakh perhaps you missed the point of the answer. the answer is more about how to behave in a considerate fashion... plus one. – Solar Mike Aug 31 at 9:17
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    Implying someone is faking a disability without ever meeting them and promoting that view on social media is very close to hate speech. I have flagged this answer as something that offends me deeply. Not all injuries are obvious and you are out of line. I up-voted the more tactful answer which suggested the other employees should keep the door unlocked and the lights on for their own good. – some_guy632 Aug 31 at 14:08
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    @SolarMike: I did not "miss the point of the answer", no; but thanks anyway. (There's no rule that comments should only be about the main point of an answer. This answer has a serious problem that should be fixed, regardless of whether that serious problem affects its main point.) – ruakh Aug 31 at 15:27
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    I am not saying she is feigning a disability simply that she does not have one. If she truly is disabled, and this list of demands are ‘ADA accommodations’ they would NOT have come from her. They would have come from HR or management. And considering how odd the list is, there most likely would have been a meeting in advance of her first day: ”hello everyone, this meeting is to discuss a new employee starting soon. She is disabled and we have the following list of special accommodations we need to follow....Yes, some of these things may seem odd, but because of her XYZ disability....” – Tbnavarro Sep 1 at 1:19
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Talk to your manager and ask if these are accommodations that you need to adhere to. Explain the difficulty her demands are making on you: eye strain, inability to discuss problems with your co-worker. Ask your manager how they would like you to deal with this.

You don't have to do things that cause you pain and slow down your work, unless it comes from your manager (and even then you have options). If she hasn't requested accommodations, then you should be able to work as usual. If she has, the changes you need to make should come from your manager, not her.

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    Don't forget to bring up the safety aspect of a locked door. – RedSonja Sep 1 at 5:58
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Sharing a locked room is a showstopper

This is a person: whose mental stability and reliability is unestablished; who has difficulty resolving personal differences in drama-free ways (and perhaps even a penchant for drama); and who also seems manipulative, and who seems unconcerned for your situation, i.e. Sociopathy. I'll grant you this is a "glass half empty" view, but we're doing risk analysis here so that's necessary.

You mention this, but I don't think you're treating it seriously enough. Risk is chance x severity. Low chance, but severity is the end of your life as you know it: scandal, unemployability, poverty, and even prison and sex offender registry. An easily made accusation by her could result in a big payoff..

We have a rule at my employer that an employee can't be alone with a customer (i.e. 1 of each). Guest because they are not known quantities, as is not a new hire. So our office would never allow someone to be put in that position.

This isn't really believable as an ADA accommodation

If one person really needed dark, locked door, they'd handle this by tasking a "mother's room", maintenance room, utility space, or small meeting room for that person alone (or birds of that feather).

The company might even poll around for employees who want to work in a dark, closed-door, silent, NOC type environment.

Or they could simply let the person work from home, citing ADA as the reason and since they won't be talking to anyone anyway.

Regardless, ADA compliance is not your job. A rank and file employee can't use ADA as a club on other coworkers; that's always bull, and is not a bona-fide ADA claim. The workflow is: the employee takes the compliance request to HR... HR and legal confer over whether this is bona fide.. HR and management confer with employees on whether and how to accommodate... And at that point you raise any objections to where hte plan might impact you. You can also raise those objections later.

Besides, nevermind ADA. The Building Codes require a minimum level of light in employee office spaces. An individual employee can opt out if they like (NOC etc.) but they can't impose it on other employees. So this is kind of an ADA matter after all, if you can't see to work. Vision is definitely an ADA protected class.

  • In all of the places I've worked, the only offices that had locks were either on the C wing or for people with high security clearances. – David Hammen Sep 1 at 1:03
  • @DavidHammen I've done Facilities work. Facilities can trivially fit a lock to any door. That will happen anyway if an existing locked door was used, because there'll be keying. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 at 7:17
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    These requirements really are pretty consistent with ASD, except for the "locked door", which is likely a maladaptation to avoid unexpected interruptions. Some of these requirements can be found singularly with a variety of people -- I had a co-worker who couldn't handle all the traffic in our shared office because I was a technical resource to our entire area. He wanted less disruption. But he was fine with the lights, talking, etc. At another job, many of us removed bulbs to have less light. But some liked it. – Julie in Austin Sep 1 at 13:33
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    @JulieinAustin These requirements also are pretty consistent with people who don't like cube farms. Preferring offices with doors, liking quiet, disliking interruptions, preferring low-light when spending a lot of time looking at screens, having to really work at social skills... these are "normal human traits". And rather than "project upon that person" a disorder they don't even claim to have, OP needs to place his/her own interests first. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 at 16:59
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    @JohnStraka Network Operations Center. Huge screens all over the walls reporting server and traffic stats, etc. Back in the day those screens weren't very bright, so normal office lighting would wash them out. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 18 at 15:44
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these feel like unreasonable demands to be making

These are. And because these are unreasonable demands, when she makes remarks you shoud explain the reasons you explained above :

You and your coworkers need to talk in order to be more productive. If she dos not want to be disturbed by any sound, offer her to get earplugs (or gift them to her as a proof of good will) ;

For the room being closed and locked, explain this is

especially uncomfortable for [you] as working in the dark is straining [your] eyes and [you're] not comfortable being closed up in the room.

If she refuses to comply, then obvisously her demands are negatively affecting your or your coworkers' work. You should raise this topic with your manager detailing the loss of productivity and possible health issue implied and the discussion you had.

For the email thing, ask directly to your manager if that way of proceeding is okay with her or him.

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Based on the description of the accommodations, it sounds as though this employee has an issue with overly stimulating environments. This is common with people who have Autism Spectrum Disorders, and it is a real problem, not just some kind of unreasonable demand. This is based on the collection of requested accommodations, taken as a whole. I've seen these requests made separately, but this collection is pretty much usually ASD.

So, not some kind of weird collection of "I'm so special requests."

That said, it would also seem that HR has failed to do its job. ADA requires that accommodations be both reasonable, and not create an undue hardship on other employees. Here's an example, which is similar to one I've seen before.

A new employee has a disability which prevents them from carrying packages which weigh more than 20 pounds or which require both hands to carry. The employer ships many packages with weights from 5 to 40 pounds, and many of those packages can be carried with either one hand or two. Multiple employees are responsible for carrying those packages already. In this case, it would be a reasonable accommodation to have the employee with the disability only carry the light packages, and the others carry more of the heavier packages. In order to avoid over-burdening the non-disabled employees, the disabled employee will be required to carry more total packages.

This set of accommodations is both reasonable (these smaller and lighter packages are part of the ordinary work flow) and not unduly burdensome (the disabled employee will be doing more carrying, just with smaller packages, so the other employees aren't doing significantly more physical labor and being unduly burdened).

In the present case, this employee requires an environment which is as free from "stimulation" as possible. HR failed to find an unduly burdensome solution, and instead chose to ... unduly burden ... everyone else.

What HR should have done was look for a workspace which fit the requirements and assigned the employee to that space. At various jobs we've had a number of small rooms which were large enough for a desk and chair, and sometimes not much more. Because employees are presumably already using email, they could be told to treat this new employee as though they were "working remotely." It would then be up to the disabled employee to stay on top of all email and instant messenger communications. Since all of their "external" communication is via some online media, it would be reasonable for the employer to expect them to handle that communication in a more timely manner than employees who were open to face-to-face chats.

TL;DR - HR didn't do it's job and instead forced everyone else to make accommodations, instead of the company making them.

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    You might be right for most of the demands. Keeping the office locked is not reasonable and I doubt it even qualifies as accommodation. – WGroleau Aug 31 at 0:52
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    These would be unreasonable conditions regardless of disability. – Andy Aug 31 at 1:38
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    "HR failed to find an unduly burdensome solution, and instead chose to ... unduly burden ... everyone else." -- There's no indication in the question that HR has said anything, or even knows about this. The question describes demands made by the employee. (Possibly HR has said something and the question doesn't mention it, but that's not the way I'd bet.) – Keith Thompson Aug 31 at 19:30
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I would say that you, and everyone affected by her whims, should have immediately told her that her rights and freedoms end where the next person's (that is, yours) rights and freedoms start.

She can arrange her workplace however she wishes; she has no right to demand you to do the same.

Requests should be accommodated only as long as they are reasonable. A request that there is no overly loud conversation, way too much noise etc, would be reasonable. A request that no one talks at all is not.

You need to make it clear to her that such demands will not be accepted, and you need to put a stop to it right away. Do not give in, do not lose any ground, every time you accept an unreasonable demand will make for more uphill battle later on.

If she turns off the light, you turn it on. If she repeats it, involve both the manager and HR right away.

And if you happen to work in a company where the manager and the HR do not do their job, and they ask all of you in that room to submit to demands of one person, find another job.

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You can bail on the relationship and call HR if you want, but this is actually great raw material for building a strong team. Working through issues like this is the only route to a high performing team. Usually you have to work to find issues to work through, but you've got them right out in the open. It may start out uncomfortable, but if you can find the route to understanding each other, you'll end up in a much better place.

I hired an employee for whom the harsh (for them) lights made it difficult to work. He explained the situation to me, then proceeded to wear sunglasses. No inconvenience to anyone else.
I had another employee that wanted all the lights off because the slight buzz from the ballast resonated with them somehow and made it hard to concentrate. I don't remember the resolution, but we found one and it wasn't shutting off the lights.
Note that neither of these made any sense until after the conversation. Once we understood each other, it was easier to work together and find a solution.
OTOH, requiring the door to be closed and locked hints that there is some trigger or background issue. A simple conversation would bring out the real issue and move you toward finding a mutually acceptable solution.

To sum up, you have to sit down with them and talk it out. "Can we talk about this? Working in the dark (pick any one of the issues to start with) isn't working for me. Can you help me understand, so we can find a mutual solution?"

  • @anonymousVoter Can you clarify what the downvote was for so I can improve the answer? – BWhite Sep 3 at 16:23
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The key fact about this scenario is that you received this list of demands directly from her, not from your management or HR. Neither have your management or HR communicated with you nor made special provisions for her. There is no way anyone could complete a recruitment process, which may comprise multiple interviews, without anyone being aware of requirements to sit in darkness and communicate only via email. Therefore we can rule out any sort of official medical diagnosis.

I would strongly advise against being in a locked room with this individual. Not only may they turn violent at any time, if noone else was present there would be no witnesses should they choose to make any allegations against you. You must immediately escalate it up your reporting line, and to HR, and don't be afraid to involve the police should you feel unsafe. If that fails, then quitting on the spot and finding another job is preferable to ending up on the news.

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There are a large number of answers already but I can add something to this.

I have a real disability causing me to appear to want dark rooms. (In fact I want light in the lower end of the typical range and no flicker at all which means no fluorescent lightbulbs) We had constant fights over it in our old smaller building; in the new building we arranged so I would have my own office and I put posters up on the glass to separate my light domain from the others.

I am really really troubled by the employer's response to this employee's accommodation claims. Assuming these are real (and I find this plausible) the only acceptable accommodation is this employee gets a minimum-sized office. Convert a closet if necessary. Other employees should not have to put up with sharing an environment with this employee. This is not proper.

While I'm not going to actually propose this as a solution as there could easily be good reasons not to do so, it would make sense for this employee to work remotely 100% of the time. Employees with weird disabilities should be able to set up home offices if their jobs can be done remotely. However there could be structural reasons why this is a bad idea.

  • Almost any modern office will have efficient fluorescents, which means electronic ballasts, which means the bulb is modulated electronically, which makes flicker go away. All incandescents and many LEDs still shimmer at 100-120Hz. an electronic ballast is very light, and second if you wave your hand across the light or track your face across it without moving your eyes, a shimmering light will leave tracks. Like GM car taillights at night. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 at 23:42
  • Another test is the "dots" on LP turntables. If they can be seen (without the turntable's assist light), the room light is flickering. A similar "shimmer detector" could be made any number of ways. These don't work on modern fluorescents. With almost all tubes having CRI of 90+, it is the best light that is readily available, beating even LED. I am a painter and a light snob, and flicker is unacceptable. – Harper - Reinstate Monica Sep 1 at 23:56
  • @Harper: I take it you haven't use high capacitance ballast on LEDs. In my house I use LEDs with a capacitor strong enough to power the bulb for a second. The disturbing thing is most fluorescents flicker way too much. I have encountered a few that didn't, but most offices seem to have mostly ones that do. Maybe ballasts go bad and most people can't notice. – Joshua Sep 2 at 2:11
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That person is not your boss, isn't above you in the hierarchy. You don't have to obey it's orders and, in fact, you should make a point of putting her in her place by turning on the lights, talk when needed and unlocking the door.

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You have the same rights as this person. From her side it's would be polite to ask you and your co-workers if those changes would be comfortable for all of you.

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To be constructive with this person...

Suggest she works from home

The only reasons for an employee to be in the office are for easier communications with other coworkers, and perhaps for their progress to be monitored by management. Neither is true for her.

If she works from home, she can do whatever she wants to create her chosen working environment, without impacting on other people. She's only communicating by email anyway. And clearly management are not paying close attention to her.

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