sexual harrassment if co-worker uncomfortable with gay/hiv status?
Jun 17, 2002
I work in a small 3 person office at a casual high tech company. Our manager is offsite but comes into visit once a week or so. One of my co-workers is uncomfortable about me being gay and hiv positive. She went so far as to complain to our manager that she has seen me reading gay news items from gay news sources on line. My manager immediately called Human Resources and explored sexual harrassment charges. It went no where fortunately and it was determined that 'how one goes about getting one's news and information online is the business of that person and not anyone elses...etc.' My manager said she talked to my co-worker and that this person is uncomfortable with the whole "gay and poz-thing". This person "genuinely likes me as a person but because of religious midwest up bringing, is finding it hard to reconcile feelings". I've also discovered this person is still uncomfortable and has been corresponding with other people via company email regarding my status and in general, spreading terrible rumors and lies. I brought this to the attention of our manager and she is downplaying the whole issue. At this point I am the one who feels like I am in a hostile work environment. I brought this to the attention of my managers boss and he said - 'what do you wanna do? get a bunch of goddamn lawyers involved? it will get ugly. Is that what you really want?". That took me by surprise and I really have not answered that question yet. It was determined that I have not done or said anything inappropriate - can I be harrassing someone just because I am gay and or poz and a coworker does not 'feel comfortable' with that aspect of my life?
Response from Ms. Breuer
Wow! You've ended up with the Nightmare Co-Worker AND the Nightmare Boss's Boss. Let's tackle this one as cleanly as possible, ignoring your uninformed boss's boss's veiled threat concerning lawyers.
Sexual harassment is only a figment of this. You are being discriminated against under the terms of the Americans with Disabilities Act. If I were you, I would pay what it takes to get a lawyer to write a letter to your employer, preferably to HR. Often you can find a lawyer associated with a local AIDS services organization whose rates are low or non-existent. The purpose of the letter is to be civil but very clear about the violations of the ADA and put the employer on notice that is has to stop. Most often, that's all that's necessary. We're not talking about a $500 retainer here; we're talking a fee to generate a letter.
Let's run this variation: suppose your co-worker were uncomfortable working beside a Black person. Any confusion about how the responsible employer would handle that one? No. This is a parallel situation.
Whether you are protected against workplace discrimination based on sexual orientation is a function of your state. But the ADA is federal.
If you'll let me know your city, I'll research whether we have trained a facilitator in your area to provide workplace HIV education. We've trained several hundred, so it is possible. Your co-worker needs workplace HIV fast, and probably due to her actions, the rest of the company does too. This is a legal issue, a medical issue, a productivity issue and a morale issue. That may be enough business issues to interest your boss's boss.
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