2009 Yields Bounty of Offbeat Workplace News

By Kathy Gurchiek Jan 1, 2010
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Dosing the boss’ coffee with tranquilizers, implementing Naked Friday, and receiving twice-a-week leave from an employer urging workers to be fruitful and multiply were among the most unusual workplace-related news developments in 2009.

Tokyo-based electronics company Canon gives its workers a break from their typical 12-hour day by sending them home at 5:30 p.m. twice a week with an eye toward reversing Japan’s low birth rate and reducing the overtime rate at the same time, CNN reported in January 2009. The long hours workers put in are blamed for the country’s low birth rate.

But in Brooksville, Fla., hygiene and undies—not birthin’ babies—are mandated for municipal employees. The city council there thought it necessary to require that employees put on both deodorant and underwear before they come to work. The mayor in June cast the lone vote against the updated dress code. He said he hadn’t observed a lack of use of those items and wondered how infractions could even be determined, the St. Petersburg Times online news team reported.

The British Union Trade Congress wanted women workers to leave their high heels at home and sought to ban them in the workplace, calling them an “extremely dangerous” health hazard. In some occupations the practice is discriminatory, the UTC said, pointing to female bank employees and flight attendants who are required to wear heels while on their feet all day. It wanted to restrict heels to no more than 1.5 inches tall.

Going without heels—plus shirts, trousers and dresses—was encouraged at a marketing firm in northern England that looked to literally strip its male and female employees of inhibitions and boost camaraderie after six layoffs. The plan was to institute a Naked Friday. No word on whether the concept was under consideration at Canon.

Good Job, Here’s a Mil

Recognition for a job well done can come in many forms—a thank-you note or e-mail from the boss or even a gift card or gas card from the employer. Jenna Lyons, creative director of J.Crew Group Inc., received a one-time cash bonus of $1 million in October for overseeing the creation of the Obama girls’ inaugural duds and the First Lady’s cardigan that is a J.Crew signature, the Wall Street Journal reported.

However, if Lyons wants to keep the full bonus, she has to stay for more than four years; if she leaves after two years she has to repay the full amount; she must repay half if she leaves after two years but within four years.

Not getting a $1 million bonus: two seasonal workers at Yellowstone National Park. Park management was pretty steamed after seeing a webcam that caught the men, hired to work concessions at the Old Faithful Inn, using the famed geyser as a urinal. The men were fired, according to an Associated Press report in May.

In Spain, a worker who was fired in January 2008 for referring to his boss as the son of a female dog—but not phrasing it quite as delicately—won on appeal in 2009 when a court found the phrase is a common one used in arguments throughout the country.

More than Colleagues

There is a familial-like bonding that occurs in some workplaces, but for two men in Virginia it was the real thing.

Thirty-seven-year-old police sergeant Chris Walker—who had been trying to find his biological father—discovered him in colleague and Officer Clay Walker. Clay Walker had retired from the Richmond, Va., police department and joined the Petersburg, Va., police department, where Chris Walker worked.

Clay Walker was just a teen when Chris Walker was conceived. Mother and father went their separate ways, according to theRichmond Times-Dispatch.

Chris Walker, who had been raised 20 miles away from his father, started chatting up his new colleague and then ran some of the details by his mother, who confirmed that Clay Walker was her son’s father.

“He's my dad, and I love him, and I look forward to a lot of years with him," Chris Walker told the Times-Dispatch. “God works in mysterious ways.”

Horoscopes, Witches

A collection agency in Lithuania wants to bewitch deadbeats. It hired the “most famous self-styled witch” in the country to track down people who fail to pay their debts,National Public Radioreported in January 2009. The witch also was to use her powers for good by helping those persons with the “psychological impact of bankruptcy and depression.”

Instead of witchcraft, an insurance company in Austria looked to astrological signs in its talent search, according to a Mail Foreign Service report. The Salzburg-based company posted an advertisement for sales and marketing jobs that noted it was looking for persons who were born under the signs of Capricorn, Taurus, Aquarius, Aries and Leo.

The company maintained that its preference was based on statistics that showed almost all of its best workers were born under those signs. An investigation found the company’s approach was not illegal, because it didn’t violate laws aimed at protected groups, according to a news report.

It’s the power of the new magic of the Internet, not the more traditional eye of newt and toe of frog, that Best Buy wanted to invoke in hiring a senior manager in emerging media marketing.

Among the requirements: the job candidate had to have 250 Twitter followers, the United Kingdom’s Telegraph reported in July.

Too much social media on the job can trip up an employee, though. A Criminal Court judge in New York City was transferred to another position in part because of his social networking activity. That included one occasion where he allegedly updated his Facebook status while sitting on the bench and another when he took a photo of his crowded courtroom and posted it on his Facebook page, the Staten Island Advance reported in October 2009.

Criticism Hard to Swallow

Biting his tongue might have saved a San Diego Chargers football player a $2,500 fine for criticizing in his tweet the “nasty food” he and his teammates got at training camp.

“I didn't think it would cause a stir like I did, but me being me, I think I'm going to keep my mouth shut from here on out,” star cornerbackAntonio Cromartiesaid. "I ain't going to say nothing else. I want to make sure I keep everything positive,” he told The Associated Press.

Twenty-eight office workers were too busy being sick to tweet about the experience after noxious odors created by a worker cleaning the refrigerator sent them to a hospital and a hazmat team to the office building in May 2009.

The worker unplugged the fridge to clean it, and the combination of moldy food and two cleaning chemicals created toxic fumes that filled the AT&T building in downtown San Jose, Calif. Seven workers were hospitalized; the enterprising worker apparently was unaffected because her allergies prevented her from detecting the smell, according to The Associated Press.

Highly charged supervisors might want to make sure they get their own coffee. A 24-year-old woman who cleaned the cages at an animal clinic in Arkansas dosed her boss’ coffee with tranquilizers in April because he needed to “chill out,” according to a news report. Her subsequent arrest might have given her some time to chill as well.

In Japan, a 23-year-old railway worker was just trying to buy some extra time after running late to work. Who knew that pressing an emergency button on his commuter train would get him in trouble? He wanted to be able to explain to his boss that he was late because he had to investigate a train delay. Police, who had been investigating the crossing for similarly halted trains, had other plans and arrested him.

A woman stocking grocery shelves in Scotland is humming a happy tune, but not before she almost was fined for music piracy.

After the shop owner where Sandra Burt worked ditched the radio she listened to because of a warning from the Performing Rights Society (PRS), which collects royalties for its music clients, Burt sang to herself.

Uh oh. The PRS sent her a letter of warning for singing without benefit of a performance license and informed her she could be fined.

There’s a happy ending, though. The PRS reversed its decree and sent the 56-year-old worker a bouquet and note of apology.

For which she got immense satisfaction.

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

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