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Nathan Workman

Nathan Workman’s Answers

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  • Working in a hostile law firm

    I work in a small law firm with only one attorney. I think the attorney is manic bipolar and on top of that smokes marijuana on a daily routine. He is always yelling and cussing. He complains if we take a lunch break and makes rude comments whe...

    Nathan’s Answer

    I'm sorry that you're experiencing this in the workplace. The practice of law is stressful, and sometimes the nicest individuals you'll ever meet in a social capacity can transform into frenzied "rageaholics" at the office. While it's no excuse for what you're employer is doing, rest assured it is a common problem that many people face; you're not alone.

    From the facts you've given, his conduct likely doesn't rise to an actionable level quite yet. There is no federal law requiring that an employer provide a lunch break, and there is no North Carolina law mandating a lunch break or other breaks for employees.

    Also, Federal and North Carolina law both protect employees from hostile work environments and retaliation, but to be "hostile" under the law it must be both an environment a reasonable person would find hostile or abusive and one that the person who is the object of the harassment perceives to be hostile or abusive. To find this, agencies and courts look at the circumstances, including the frequency of the harassing conduct, its severity, whether it is physically threatening or humiliating, and whether it unreasonably interferes with regular work performance. It's not an impossible standard to meet, but it exceeds what I would call a "highly unpleasant work environment."

    I'd recommend that you start keeping records as a precaution. Mark dates and times that he's made particularly abusive comments or threats, especially if they relate to race, gender, age, or border on sexual harassment. Also document if he uses marijuana or some other drugs at work. If you are terminated, or the environment gets much worse, the records will be helpful for an EEOC or other state claim. It would also be a good idea to keep all the records regarding the medicine for your anxiety, especially if your doctor has made a diagnosis that it is directly related to stress at the workplace.

    However, there are some non-legal things you can do that may help the situation. It seems like he's troubled from something in his professional or personal life and taking it out at the workplace. While it's not good for your work situation, it isn't good for his clients either. Happy and healthy lawyers always serve their clients better than depressed and angry lawyers, and North Carolina has been very proactive in this area. I'd call NC Bar Cares (800-640-0735) and/or NC Lawyers Assistance Program (800-720-7257) and speak to them anonymously about the issue, explaining that you are concerned about your job security, but that you want him to have some help for his behavior. Both agencies deal with these types of situations all the time and can contact him in a way that he might be receptive to and actually get some help.

    Additionally, I would recommend that you schedule some time to meet him and your fellow employee in or preferably out of the office, perhaps on a Friday late afternoon at a casual place for happy hour. I'd say that you both would like to meet with him and discuss how he feels you both are doing, where you both can improve, and what things you both could do to make his life easier and the firm run better. I don't think he'd feel threatened or angry about that, and it'll open up an opportunity for dialogue.

    When you have the meeting, bring a list of things you would like to see changed too. Maybe you could offer win/win alternatives, like suggesting that your paychecks are automatically deposited through the bank. This would reduce paperwork, save time, and prevent the rude comments. Or, asking him how much time he needs to know in advance for vacation to not feel worried or upset. Or, asking if he would be open to offering flex time for sick days, where time could be made up over weekends or overtime instead of losing vacation days. If anything is agreed to, be sure to get it in writing as a new policy. I can't tell you how much having documented policies helps with conflict.

    I hope your situation gets better soon. Best of luck to you!

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