As we enter the holiday season, the song Auld Land Syne will be thought of and perhaps sung by many on New Year’s Eve. The crux of the song is about taking time to remember and appreciate the good people that became part of your life. Being one of those that make a positive difference in your co-worker’s life rather than one that causes strife in the workplace provides job stability and enhances your ability for career growth.
We all spend a great deal of our waking hours at work and develop relationships with co-workers; however, both employer and employee alike should understand the importance of boundaries with their co-workers. It is appropriate to be compassionate and supportive of your co-worker’s legitimate struggles rather than their creating drama. A team rather than family approach to workplace relations makes sense. Team members support each other toward the common goal of the business and pick up their team mates when they fall down. They protect each other from adversaries whether it is other competitors, the coach (boss), or a team mate (co-worker) acting badly. Team mates should not enable a jerk who marginalizes other team mates. Under New Hampshire and federal employment law, being a jerk is not a protected class and you can be fired for being a jerk even if you are in a protected class.
In the holiday season, co-workers may get together either in a company-sponsored gathering, offsite at a mutual acquaintance’s house, or local bar. Depending on your job, over indulgence of alcohol, in and of itself, may not necessarily alter your career path, but what you say or how you act while are under the influence will. For example, if Jack and Jill worked together and Jack goes to a party where Jill is present and decides after a few drinks to make a romantic move on Jill, that could impact Jack’s employment. Such catch phrases as like “what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas” is not accurate amongst co-workers.
In the above scenario, if Jack tells Jill that he would like them to date and she politely rebuffs him, perhaps the worst will be the awkwardness in the working conditions going forward. However, if Jack after being rebuffed by Jill and due to his alcohol consumption misjudges her rebuffing of him as being hard to get and thereafter grabs her with an intent to kiss her, a more serious disciplinary action may happen to him including him being fired. The fact that the action happened offsite at a non-company gathering does not legally alter the employer’s ability to fire Jack. If under that scenario, Jill does not rebuff’s romantic moves and they do get together and date for a while and the relationship eventually comes to an end; they are still co-workers. Since not all romantic relationships end well and their personal problems may pour over into the workplace, the employer may get involved taking action against one or both of them for the things they do or say due to their estranged personal relationship. Perhaps the employer has an existing policy on co-workers dating that may even involve a relationship contract they need to sign to continue the relationship.
At the same party, if Jack instead of getting amorous gets into a heated political discussion with a co-worker, the discussion could become uncivil and denigrating. Jack could lose his job or at a minimum decrease his potential for a promotion in the future. Jack would be mistaken to believe his private employer needs to afford him freedom of speech outside or inside the workplace. The constitutional right to freedom of speech prohibits the government, not a private employer, from inhibiting your speech. New Hampshire is an employment at will state meaning that absent a contract or statutory right, the employment relationship can end with or without cause and with or without notice except for certain limited circumstances which do not include denigrating your co-worker for his political views. It is very unwise to get into a heated debate of politics with your co-worker in that at a minimum, the two of you may think less of each other after the exchange. Regardless of what the extremists of both political parties and the hosts on some cable television shows of either extreme would like us to believe, there are plenty of very good people with differing political views on both sides. That said, workers are encouraged under federal law, the National Labor Relations Act, to communicate with each other about workplace issues so that they may improve. So if Jack instead was complaining to a co-worker that their mutual boss was under performing and that their jobs would be easier if the boss spent more time at the shop working, that communication is protected under statutory law and Jack may not be punished for it.
In summary, you can nurture strong work relations with co-workers based upon their work ethic and team approach regardless of their personal lives and beliefs. Keeping that in mind when at social gatherings with co-workers and while at the workplace, along with keeping alcohol consumption in control at any gathering with co-workers, coupled with your own strong work ethic, are positive steps toward later being thought of by others as someone who made a positive difference in other workers’ lives. This approach will also enhance the chance of a successful career path.
J. Daniel Marr is a Director and Shareholder at Hamblett & Kerrigan, P.A. His legal practice includes counseling businesses and individuals on a variety of legal issues and advocating on their behalf. Attorney Marr is licensed and practices in both New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Attorney Marr can be reached at [email protected].