Flatulence Fodder for Official Reprimand

Nobody likes it when someone cuts the cheese. But if it happens at work, repeatedly, is that grounds for claiming a “hostile work environment?”

The U.S. Social Security Agency (SSA) issued this warning letter to one of its employees on December 10, 2012.

The employee was warned during a performance review by his supervisor on May 18, 2012 that his co-workers were complaining, and was warned again on July 17 and August 14. He provided medical documentation at one point that he was lactose intolerant, but the supervisor stated in the letter, “It is my belief that you can control this [flatulent] condition.”

The letter included a timetable of all of the occurrences this employee let one rip in the office between Sept. 7-Nov. 29, 2012. Or at least the ones they were able to identify. It does make you wonder how they monitored this employee to fill out the incident report, and whether or not his trips to the restroom were followed.

The letter continued to indicate that the situation “has become intolerable” and that he was “creating a hostile work environment for all your coworkers.” An official reprimand was considered the least severe penalty possible, and stated:

The agency cannot tolerate such behavior by its employees. As an SSA employee, I expect you to treat your coworkers with courtesy and respect at all times. Disrespectful and unprofessional behavior is unacceptable and detracts from the agency’s ability to maintain a safe, pleasant and productive work environment.

A week after the letter was issued it was withdrawn, once it came to the attention of more senior SSA managers. Given the supposed medical nature of this employee’s condition, there would be a potential duty to accommodate by the employer.

Sean Bawden of Kelly Santini LLP provides this analysis:

…had this individual been fired (and it would appear that s/he has no longer even been reprimanded), and had s/he worked in Ontario, would it have been a violation of the employee’s rights as afforded by the Human Rights Code?

The first question is whether having an odour-free workplace is a bona fides operational requirement of the employer. While there are certainly issues related to accommodating those with odour sensitivities to such things as perfumes, it is questionable whether an employer can impose a prohibition against flatulence.

The second question would be whether the employer made efforts to accommodate this employee to the point of undue hardship. And, given the Supreme Court of Canada’s recent decision on the subject, considering in this blog in School Board Learns Lesson in Accommodationin addition to making efforts the employer would also have to show that it considered all of its reasonable options. While offering to purchase Gas-X is a gesture, I am not sure if it goes far enough.

Although not a legal inquiry, , the Workplace Diva, provides some etiquette on how we might handle the situation:

We all fart, we all get stomach gurgles, we all burp and hiccup, and usually at the worst possible moments. Maybe you “sneezefarted,” meaning you sneezed so hard you let one rip at the same time. So awkward and embarrassing. Whatever happens, it’s how we handle these situations that counts. The first and trickiest step is whether or not to acknowledge the obvious. Rule of thumb: the more obvious the bodily malfunction, the more you should just own it. If you fart in a staff meeting and everyone heard it, point the finger at yourself (or have someone pull it) and have a sense of humor about the whole thing. Maybe you shouldn’t have had those Cajun rice and beans. Yes, feel free to reference lines from the Russian Unicorn if you must. Throw in a few Blazing Saddles jokes for the win.

Your co-workers will appreciate your candor, and God knows we all need a good laugh in this recession. Chances are, your air-clearing emission be one of the only things your co-workers will remember about the meeting, anyway.

If you unleash a silent but deadly fart as you’re walking down the hallway and people can’t automatically point the finger at you, then simply let the moment pass. It’s just between you and your colon. Who, me? It must be that other guy. Then be glad it didn’t happen on national television.

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