Don’t “Ask Amy”!*

by Constangy, Brooks, Smith & Prophete, LLP

*For employment law advice.

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Amy Dickson of the syndicated advice column “Ask Amy” is someone I read daily and agree with maybe 50 percent of the time. On most of the matters on which we disagree, she is probably right and I am probably wrong.

But she really blew it today when she tried to venture into the area of employment law.

A letter writer said that she (I’m assuming the writer was female) was hired to be an assistant, and that her boss had wanted to hire someone else. Presumably, because he didn’t get the assistant he wanted, he made the letter writer’s life hell at work and influenced co-workers to pile on.

Here is a link to the column. The boss sounds like a total SOB.

That said . . .

Apart from what appeared to be a throwaway reference to an “old boys’ club,” there was no indication that the boss was acting out against the letter writer because of her race, sex (including but not limited to gender identity or sexual orientation), national origin, religion, color, age, disability, or other protected status. It sounded like he just hated her because she wasn’t the person he wanted to hire. And I assume the person he did want to hire was also female.

Nonetheless, Amy advised the letter writer that this sounded like “the essence of a hostile work environment” and recommended that the letter writer go to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Instead of telling the letter writer that the EEOC could help her determine whether she had a case under the federal anti-discrimination laws (which would be correct), Amy told the letter writer that she should decide whether she wanted to pursue legal action. As if it were a foregone conclusion that she had a legal case. Which was far from clear.

Dear Readers, general advice columns (Miss Manners, Ask Amy, Carolyn Hax, etc.) are fun to read and sometimes have good advice about how to handle personal or social situations, but please don’t rely on them for workplace advice. There are some excellent Human Resources advice columnists who can properly recognize legal issues and who will consult with employment lawyers when an issue has legal implications. Read them when you have a problem at work. My favorite is Suzanne Lucas of The Evil HR Lady. Another good one is Karla Miller of the “Work Advice” column in The Washington Post. If you still think you may have a legal issue based on what these HR columnists say, then make an appointment to talk to a real lawyer in your state who represents employees.

And here is an open letter from me to Amy Dickson:

Dear Amy:

I am a daily reader of your column and an employment lawyer.

The EEOC processes charges of discrimination, meaning that an individual does not have a case unless the “hostile work environment” is based on the individual’s race, sex, national origin, religion, color, age, or disability. If the letter writer seeks legal assistance, you should advise her to consult with an attorney in her state who represents employees. The attorney could advise her about more than just the “EEO” laws (which may not apply in her case), including whether she might have a claim for intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress, constructive discharge, or bullying (if her state has an anti-bullying law). The EEOC will not be able to help her with any of those potentially viable claims.

You might want to follow the lead of Suzanne Lucas, The Evil HR Lady, or Karla Miller, author of the “Work Advice” column in The Washington Post. Whenever Ms. Lucas or Ms. Miller has an issue with potential legal ramifications, they consult with one or more employment lawyers. I have never known them to “wing it” on legal matters.

Employment law is important. It should not be dabbled in.

Thank you,

Robin Shea

DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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