Gas attack: employer raises stink over worker flatulence

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From telling an employee they smell to enforcing the dress code, HR is all about tough conversations. Unfortunately for one Baltimore man, a stern conversation wasn’t enough to prevent him being formally warned about his gassy problem.

A Social Security Administration employee received a five-page letter addressing the issue, complete with a log of dates and times when he was caught passing wind. No word on who was responsible for keeping track, but it does indicate that his “busiest” day was September 19, with nine incidents recorded between 9.45am and 4.30pm.

The letter accused him of “conduct unbecoming a federal officer,” and claimed he had created an “intolerable” and “hostile” environment for coworkers, several of whom lodged complaints with supervisors. It also outlined conversations he had between May and August 2012 with his supervisor and other managers, one of whom asked him if he could make it to the bathroom before “releasing the awful and unpleasant odor”. The 38-year-old man reportedly told the company he suffered from lactose intolerance and intended to try an over the counter product to fix the problem.

The author of the letter, the man’s module manager, said he didn’t believe a medical condition was causing the problem, specifying “nothing that you have submitted has indicated that you would have uncontrollable flatulence. It is my belief that you can control this condition.”

A SSA “Deputy Division Director” also reportedly told the worker he “could not pass gas indefinitely and continue to disrupt the work place.”

While it’s a funny story for those who aren’t dealing with it, here’s a serious question: as HR professionals, what would you do about this situation?

  • John on 11/01/2013 2:26:40 PM

    Would 'firing' him send the whole place up in flames?

  • Chris Walter on 11/01/2013 2:30:56 PM

    Why is this a HR issue? And why are difficult conversations constrained to HR, also?

    This is clearly a local leadership issue.

    I wonder if the logged activities came from his supervisor in order to duck-shove the issue 'up the chain' thus abbrogating one of their responsibilities to correct undesirable workplace behaviours.

    I honestly feel for HR types burdened with this type of increasing nonsense.

    HR's job is not being a dumping ground for 'too hard' or uncomfortable human relationship issues, or their direct resolution.

    Their job is not putting out frontline spotfires, but providing advice to the frontline and their management on best practice.

  • Maria Crabb on 11/01/2013 3:21:31 PM

    A very tricky situation which needs to be handled carefully. Education in my view is always the best starting place. Also good to link it to your organisations values i.e. the behaviour is not in line with teamwork or respect.

  • Howard Whitton on 11/01/2013 5:19:38 PM

    What puzzles me is why these examples are regarded as 'difficult conversations' for HR professionals. One reason suggests itself: based on my 20 yrs experience in HR, any such 'difficulty' comes from the lack of clear policy on the part of the employer, leaving the HR professional to make it up as they go along... Not too hard to fix, this.

  • Robin Pollock on 13/01/2013 4:48:57 PM

    I would treat it the same way as smelly feet, bad BO (lack of bathing) and talk to the employee about cause. We pass what we eat and many foods cause a lot of fratulance, others far less. We all fart but majority of us control it and would be far too embarrassed to do it, particularly a smelly one, in public. Such an employee as this US example probably needs the help of a dietican and possibly could have a weight problem also. Helping the employee to see he may need to review and change his diet is not that hard. Even offering for employer to assist with this can help.
    Being sensitive to the embarrassment caused by such a discussion should be front of mind for HR dealing with such an issue.

  • Mark on 14/01/2013 10:34:00 AM

    It is odd that a line manager thinks he is in a position to diagnose medical conditions or the absence thereof. Issues are being confused. Flatulence is the issue, not whether he can control it or not. They were right in saying he “could not pass gas indefinitely and continue to disrupt the work place.” It is irrelevant if he can or can not control the issue. The disruption to the workplace is the issue. If it turns out that he has a disability/medical condition then the employer must make reasonable adjustment. Eg. single office or away from other workers if possible. If this isn't practical/reasonable then I would expect that he would have to go.

  • Kirsten on 22/01/2013 12:15:26 PM

    As is the case with most employee issues, the direct manager has the relationship and therefore is in the best position to discuss it directly with the employee. This is a manager's job. HR's job is to advise/coach managers to help them effectively manage situations with their people - not to do it for them.

  • Nicole on 14/12/2013 8:21:04 AM

    I recommend the HR pro have this conversation for two reasons. Having the conversation with someone the employee does not have to face at work every day is less humiliating to the employee. The second reason has to do with ADA. Since this is a conversation where disability information may be disclosed, it would be better handled by HR rather than the supervisor.

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