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2007 Saw Its Share of Wacky Workplace Stories
 

By Kathy Gurchiek  1/7/2008
 

From suspending an employee because of bad breath, to an employer who set up blind dates for employees, to a man who learned that his co-worker is his birth mother, 2007 saw its share of unusual—sometimes wacky—but true workplace stories.

In New York City, a doorman was suspended in December for the third time in a year for “severe breath odor while on duty.” The management firm that oversees the apartment building where he works suspended the doorman after receiving letters of complaint from residents.

Jonah Seeman, who has been doorman at the building for 40 years, had been suspended two other days in 2007 for odorous breath, but he denied that his breath is any worse one day than another. His union filed a grievance.

“I’m not using garlic anymore,” the 60-year-old man, who became known as the “Bad Breath Doorman,” told the New York Daily News. Seeman said he now pops breath mints on the job, uses mouthwash and has consulted a specialist. He returned to work on Dec. 9, 2007, after a one-day suspension.

‘Het spijt me, ik spreek geen Nederlands’ (‘I'm sorry, I don't speak Dutch’)

In an attempt to prevent the eroding of the Dutch language and the encroachment of Belgium’s other main language—French—a Belgian auto parts supplier forbid workers to speak in any language but Dutch.

Even on lunch breaks.

The consequence, after three warnings, could mean firing, Reuters reported in April.

“We have people from Italy, India, Poland, Algeria here,” HP Pelzer HR manager Geert Vermote told the news service.

Two of the 125 workers, about 70 percent of whom are not of Dutch origin, had received warnings as of April 20.

Employer as Cupid

A bank in South Korea is taking work/life balance to new lengths.

It sent 20 of its single female workers on blind dates to a mountain resort in North Korea—paying half of the cost for the two-day weekend trip—with the idea that romance will boost the workers’ morale, according to a Reuters report.

The employees, ages 29 to 33, were matched with 20 single men from South Korea by a top matchmaking agency in the country.

“This trip will offer them a chance to easily meet men,” and the bank plans to offer more subsidized blind date trips for its single employees, said Yang Jae-hyeok, who is in charge of the bank's division offering life services for employees, Reuters reported. “As our bank tries to help our employees balance their work and personal lives, we are putting more effort into improving their personal life,” Yang said.

In Scotland, workers toyed with the idea of flirting to advance their careers.

Training Tree offered “Flirting for Success” sessions with instruction on how to be witty and charming, and exercises on how to purr like a kitten and dance like Christina Aguilera and Justin Timberlake, according to outplacement consultancy Challenger, Gray & Christmas.

Even the Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce reportedly took half-day seminars in June.

More Than Co-Workers

Lowe’s employee Steve Flaig learned that he and the woman who worked the checkout line of the home improvement store had more in common than just their employer.

The 22-year-old delivery driver, who four years earlier had started his search for the single woman who had given him up for adoption in 1985, discovered in October that Christine Tallady was his birth mother.

They had worked together for just a few months when Flaig took another look at the paperwork from the adoption agency and realized he had spelled Tallady’s surname incorrectly.

Armed with the correct spelling, he found her home address was around the corner where he was raised and less than a mile from the Lowe’s where he worked, according to a Yahoo news report.

He mentioned his find to his boss, who said, “You mean Chris Tallady, who works here?” according to the news report. The adoption agency contacted Tallady for Flaig, who had been uncertain as to how to approach her with the news.

She had not known that Flaig was her son and was astonished and pleased at the news, Yahoo reported.

Now Hear This

A public address system announcer for London’s underground, or “tube,” system, was fired in November after she recorded spoof messages and posted them on her web site. In addition to remonstrating U.S. tourists for talking too loudly and advising Sudoku enthusiasts that the puzzle was a “crossword puzzle for the unimaginative,” were tongue-in-cheek messages such as the following:

“Would the passenger in the red shirt pretending to read a paper but is actually staring at that woman’s chest please stop. You’re not fooling anyone, you filthy pervert.”

And this announcement, reported by the BBC:

“Residents of London are reminded that there are other places in Britain outside our stinking X*&@# city and if you remove your heads from your X@#* for just a couple of minutes, you may realize the M25 is not the edge of the earth.”

Longtime employee Emma Clarke’s fake announcements were downloaded so many times that her web site crashed, and her firing caused a “worldwide uproar,” according to Chicago’s WBBM TV.

Clark said she was having a “bit of fun” and hadn’t intended to offend anyone.

Her job came to an end, the BBC reports, when her supervisors looked unkindly on her remarks to a newspaper, which included that she found riding the tube “dreadful.”

Shopping on Company Time

Employees who fritter away company time by shopping online might pose headaches for some employers, but in Millbrook, Ala., the municipal government there encouraged its workers to shop at the community’s new Wal-Mart while on the clock.

Mayor Al Kelley closed City Hall on June 13 to allow employees to attend the grand opening of the store that created 420 jobs. “City hall is closed so everybody can have the opportunity to shop [at the new store],” he said, according to the Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser. “I just told everybody they had to bring a paid Wal-Mart receipt back to work.”

Court Scotches Forced Drinking

And in South Korea, a high court ruled in favor of a former employee of a software game developer who sued over being forced to drink with co-workers after hours.

Heavy drinking is part of the corporate culture of South Korea.

The court ruled that “forced drinking against (an employee’s) limit and willingness infringes on personal rights,” the BBC reported.

The 28-year-old woman said she had to attend at least two after-work drinking sessions per week after she joined the organization in April 2004. Some sessions lasted as late as 3 a.m. She quit after two months and filed the lawsuit.

No Head Scratcher

A court in Germany apparently split hairs over a male employee’s appeal to his health insurer to pay for his toupee, denying the request.

The health insurer was not required to cover the cost of the man’s toupee because the insurer said it provided only “long-term hair replacement support” for women and minors. Despite the man’s claim that he’d been bald since childhood, the court denied his request for a state-funded hairpiece, pointing out he could easily protect himself against sun and cold with a hat.

Tools for Leftys

Insurance Intermediary Kwik-Fit Insurance has about 100 left-handed employees, and the Glasgow, Scotland-based employer is providing those workers with tools to assist them in their daily workload.

“There is much more to being left-handed than just the hand you write with,” Kwik-Fit occupational health nurse Dorothy Sneddon said in a press release.

“I carry out workstation assessments on a regular basis and put forward suggestions to make them a little friendlier for that specific user,” she said.

That includes having a left-handed computer mouse or the mouse at the other side of the keyboard; having the desk phone on the left; the provision of flexible headsets; counterclockwise pencil sharpener; and having a set of stationery that is specially designed for use in the left hand.

“These are all simple steps that can make a huge difference,” she added.

It Only Looked Like She Was Working

Keeping a journal on company time was not such a good idea, a 25-year-old Iowa woman found.

She was fired in January for keeping a diary about how she avoided work as a sales coordinator for the Sheraton hotel company. She used a company computer to write her 300-page, single-spaced journal. Among her entries, according to ABC News:

“I am only here for the money and, lately, for the printer access. I haven't really accomplished anything in a long while ... and I am still getting paid more than I ever have at a job before, with less to do than I have ever had before. It's actually quite nice when I think of it that way. I can shop online, play games and read message boards and still get paid for it.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at kgurchiek@shrm.org.

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