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My wife works for a large tech firm (you have probably heard of it) as a project manager. Recently she injured her ankle hiking and will be using crutches for the next little while.

Her boss thinks that her limping around makes the team seem "wimpy" and "unready" to clients (who are not visiting anyway because COVID). He either wants her to take unpaid time off or fire her.

I was under the impression that this was illegal, but I also think that I am wrong as he emailed this and presumably he would have checked the law first.

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    What? He emailed this! What a moron! She should just print out a copy for her personal records (with all the headers) and forward that email to someone in HR and corporate legal counsel and ask for their guidance. May 30 at 5:45
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    Tell her boss you are going to get rich now. Either by him managing her to get a raise and whatever lot of money, or by selling this story to press, television and all other media you can enumerate. Since you are a fair player, let him chose the option.
    – puck
    May 30 at 7:54
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    The question is, ‘what do we do?’ The answer is, laugh all the way to the bank.
    – morbo
    May 30 at 10:32
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    It's incredibly unlikely this would happen in the situation given. Closed as highly likely windup
    – Fattie
    May 30 at 20:14
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    @Studoku I know what you mean but, (A) the situation described is just so, so, so far out there that, even if it is a straight-up question, as others have said the answer is nothing more than "laugh all the way to the bank" (B) you know how any actual questions on here mentioning actual criminal activity are just closed, although no criminal this is so far out there that it just doesn't seem suitable for this site, it's in the "would open SE to litigation" category (C) as everyone has said, ask on Law, if anywhere, about this and (D) even if not a windup, there's "more to it". So, you know.
    – Fattie
    Jun 1 at 13:23
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That's a tricky one. In essence your wife's boss has given her the keys to the Ferrari but you need to consider carefully what you want to do with it.

What her boss has done is clearly illegal discrimination and he was stupid enough to actually put it in writing. No "well known" CA tech company can afford to condone this. First thing you should do is to archive/print/notarize this e-mail so you have as much of a proof of the paper trail as you can get.

There are different ways to play this: I would start with the goals and desired outcome and than look what the appropriate course of actions are. Each one has their own pros and cons

  1. Keep your job and a good relationship with your boss. Continue career track "as is" and just smooth out the current bump
    • Have a friendly chat with your boss. Let them know the injury doesn't affect your work so there is really no reason for his demand. You can offer some compromise where you work from home a few days and show up less physically at work. If your boss is being difficult, use a phrase like "This could be potentially interpreted as discrimination which would be bad for everyone involved". If the boss remains difficult or only grudgingly agrees, than this option is out of the window.
  2. Keep having a career at the company but working for a different boss or department
    • Talk to HR but be very collaborative and friendly. Tell him that this made you uncomfortable but you don't want to make a big deal out of it. You'd love to find a solution that works for everyone and maybe a different boss or department would be more appropriate. Note that "have a career" is different from just "having a job". They won't like it if you make too much of a threat. They will never fire you (unless they are completely incompetent) but they can always park you in an undesirable job and slowly manage you out the door.
  3. Keep your job and have your boss replaced
    • Talk to HR and tell them that your boss obviously discriminated against you. You are not particularly upset about the discrimination itself, but about the boss blatant incompetence and the risk he put the company in. If they are doing it do you, they may be doing it to other people as well and if word gets out, the company will be looking really bad. Ask them how they are planning to deal with this. Also let them know that it would be hard for you to respect and trust a boss like that. This is a dicey path, HR will take action (they have to) but whether they will actually transfer or fire the boss is hard to predict.
  4. Leave the company and milk them on your way out. There will be no chance of return.
    • Talk to a lawyer first and ratify the plan. Go to HR and let them know that you have been discriminated against. You feel that this is absolutely unacceptable behavior: it's harmful to the employee and it's massive legal and PR risk to the company. Tell them that you want to do the right thing, but that you are not sure if you can still keep working there. Ask about a "mutually beneficial" solution, which is a code word for "a nice chunk of severance or hazard pay if I leave voluntarily without making a stink". If you do this, they will never ever hire your back, but will keep it quiet and confidential.
  5. Squeeze out of the situation as much as you can, even if it means you become more or less unemployable in the process
    • Talk to a lawyer how to maximize your outcome. This may easily include going public or threatening to go public and or suing for damages and emotional distress. Once you are on the war path, there is no way back. If this becomes public, it will be quite difficult for you to ever get hired again, so you should assess whether you can get enough out of their to go into "early retirement".

One more note: if you talk to a lawyer, make sure you understand their incentive and motivations. They don't care about your future life or career outlook, they care about getting paid and making the biggest chunk from the current situation.

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    Last paragraph is beyond accurate.
    – morbo
    May 30 at 15:08
  • just for the record, you'd have to INCREDIBLY CAREFULLY DOCUMENT everything, as is often mentioned on this site
    – Fattie
    Jun 1 at 13:23
  • One other thing I would mention #1 (where you don't go to HR) means that if she's fired she now has to talk to HR as an ex-employee. #2, #3 seem like the safer route. Jun 1 at 14:27
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    This is a good answer, but the way you described option 3 is confusing. I think you may have changed pronouns from "he" to "they" to describe the manager, and the way you did it sounds like "he" is the manager and "they" is the company at-large, which makes the rest of that comment read like a threat to HR and not like trying to be friendly.
    – Ertai87
    Jun 1 at 15:50
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    The nuke has a "half life" though. If you complain about something that happened 5 years ago, you only have very limited credibility and the company can always claim "we have changed since then" so the PR threat isn't as potent as it is right now.
    – Hilmar
    Jun 2 at 18:32
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For a large tech firm in the US as you described, it would be illegal to fire an employee due to a disability or temporary injury. That would be a form of illegal discrimination.

You may want to consult a labour-law lawyer in California if the boss actually emailed your wife telling her that he would fire her due to her temporary injury.

It appears that California has one of the strictest labour laws in the US.

You may also want to check the "employment contract" or HR handbook of your wife's company as they may have a good section stating that this company does not discriminate against disability (and other statuses and conditions such as race, gender, age, etc...)


Edit : Added more info and citations:

Thanks to user @zmike for posting the citation link, which is shown below:

The following website is run by The California Department of Fair Employment and Housing (DFEH) that is responsible for enforcing state laws that make it illegal to discriminate against a job applicant or employee because of a protected characteristic.

Here is a link to the citation on their website: https://www.dfeh.ca.gov/employment/#whoBody

On that website, please click on the section "WHAT IS PROTECTED", and you will see that disability is listed as a protected characteristic.

In addition, user @zmike also commented : On that California DFEH website's FAQ, "under "Can an employer fire an employee for being out sick?", specifies that "even temporary conditions, like a broken bone or pneumonia, qualify as disabilities when they limit a major life activity.""

(Also, thanks to user @Jim Clay for asking a good question about citations.)

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    You’re probably right that it would be illegal, but do you have any citations to back it up?
    – Jim Clay
    May 30 at 2:06
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    @JimClay Here is a citation: dfeh.ca.gov/employment/#whoBody (click on WHAT IS PROTECTED). I suspect (and I hope) that the injury can be a characterized as a disability or medical condition. A lawyer would be able to confirm this.
    – zmike
    May 30 at 2:53
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    @JimClay The site's FAQ, under "Can an employer fire an employee for being out sick?", specifies that "even temporary conditions, like a broken bone or pneumonia, qualify as disabilities when they limit a major life activity."
    – zmike
    May 30 at 2:56
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    While CA is a work at will state, being on crutches due to an injury, is universally protected in all 50 states. I would immediately report the manager for their comments to HR, provided you have some evidence, to backup your statements
    – Donald
    May 30 at 3:09
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    @zmike they aren't even out sick, just embarrassing to this fellow. May 30 at 9:12
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This is one of the few times HR is your friend

Her boss thinks that her limping around makes the team seem "wimpy" and "unready" to clients (who are not visiting anyway because COVID). He either wants her to take unpaid time off or fire her.

I was under the impression that this was illegal, but I also think that I am wrong as he emailed this and presumably he would have checked the law first.

Her boss created a hostile work environment - in order to fire someone due to a medical condition, the employer needs to show the condition would prevent them from doing their job. A PM can do their job effectively on crutches, so this is illegal discrimination. Others have pointed out California strengthened employee rights laws, but I doubt you'll need the extra protection.

Her boss is an idiot who has opened the company to a lawsuit. Use this to your advantage.

What to do

  • Forward the boss' email to your personal email. You'll want to have a record of this not controlled by the company

  • Forward the boss' email along with a short message to HR - something like.

<Boss' name> is threatening to fire me because I need to be on crutches temporarily. My current role is Project Manager - being on crutches doesn't prevent me from doing any of my tasks. This is creating a hostile work environment for me.

HR will hopefully step in and remove the manager. If you don't hear anything arrange a meeting with an HR rep. This is the type of thing HR is designed to handle. If you don't hear from HR quickly contact an attorny.

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    "Forward the boss' email to your personal email." -- yes, plus copy screen shots of HR salary status (wages and estimated next paycheck) to a personal drive. I have seen companies lie and claim an employee was terminated weeks before the employee actually quit. Beware. Same for any text messages in the company instant messaging system or slack. You want as much evidence as you can.
    – HenryM
    Jun 1 at 13:47

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