stupid lawsuits: fired for refusing to get boss coffee

Jezebel reports today on the case of receptionist/data entry clerk Tamara Klopfenstein:

After working for a few weeks, her (male) bosses asked her to get their coffee for them. She declined, and her manager e-mailed her, saying: “This is not open for debate. Please don’t make an easy task a big deal.” Klopfenstein felt that getting coffee “reinforced outdated gender stereotypes,” so the next day, when she was asked to get coffee again, she sent an e-mail that read: “I don’t expect to serve and wait on you by making and serving you coffee every day.” Nine minutes later, she was fired. Klopfenstein promptly sued the company for sexual discrimination and sexual harassment. The judge ruled: “The act of getting coffee is not, by itself, a gender-specific act,” and dismissed the case. But Klopfenstein’s attorneys argue that “Some tasks are inherently more offensive to women.”

Seriously? So are her lawyers arguing that asking a male receptionist to get coffee would be okay, but it’s not okay if she’s a woman?

I don’t want anyone fetching me coffee. And in fact, I sometimes bring my staff coffee. But if I asked someone to do a task that could reasonably fall in their purview (and like it or not, getting coffee isn’t crazy for a receptionist), after having already had to talk to them about it once, and they replied with Klopfenstein’s snippy email, I’d think about firing them too. And who says something that attitude-laden three weeks on the job?

(Although to be more precise, I wouldn’t fire the person on the spot. I’d warn them and explain my expectations and what sorts of responses are and aren’t acceptable, and I’d find out if the person was interested in working under those conditions. Still, I can understand why they fired her immediately — she demonstrated an attitude problem that was unlikely to go away.)

And I am a woman, if that matters, which it doesn’t.

{ 28 comments… read them below }

  1. HR Wench

    I read about this as well. I don’t know if the report is accurate, but I heard that being “the coffee go getter / maker” was discussed during the interview as one of the expected job duties. I also read that she initially was cool with it but then after a few days decided she wasn’t.

    Personally? I can’t imagine asking someone to get coffee for me. That is just weird. But, whatevs.

  2. class factotum

    What is so offensive about getting coffee? Honestly. You’re being paid by the damn hour. Get the coffee. It’s not that hard.

  3. Reva

    I feel like normally I would be on the side of this woman but her attitude about it is kind of out of line. No matter how low on the totem pole I was, no one has ever asked me to get them coffee. Sure, they’ve made other unreasonable requests, but if you’re entry level you kind of just have to suck it up and smile. Her really poor attitude is just annoying.

  4. Sandy

    Yes, it’s easy to assume it’s gender biased. It does sound like the bosses have a bit of a alpha male going on. However, I’m assuming HR Wench is right, so she was aware of it. The woman also sounds pretty young. Yeah, it stinks because it reinforces that she has no authority yet. However some of the best bosses I’ve ever had were the ones who weren’t too proud to do small, servant-like tasks.

  5. Jessica

    Stupid lawsuits indeed! I would never feel comfortable asking a employee (male or female, entry-level or not) to get me a coffee (except I don’t drink coffee, so it would be a hot chocolate).

    By the same token, I would never take a job that requires me to make coffee for anyone. My previous boss once asked me to do it and I made him instant, not plunger, with eight teaspoons of coffee and three of sugar.

    I never got asked again.

    But that was right out of my job description and was his way of trying to make me into his personal assistant rather than what my job actually was.

  6. Donna W

    You hit the proverbial nail on the head, Jessica! Beat them at their own game..be smart. A LONG time ago, I was “expected” to make coffee (once) for the warehouse crew. Well, even at the tender age of 20-something, I was able to figure a PC way out of that one. I made the coffee (once!) – I made it SO STRONG no one could drink it. I told them that’s how I drank it in Germany. No one ever expected me to make coffee again. (I was with that particular company for 5 years after that!)

  7. Dataceptionist

    Hmm, I find my own feelings so conflicted on this I had to write my own post on it!

    Essentially I don’t think there’s anything wrong with her telling them no. I think her email manner would need work, but essentially, if she’s not getting paid as an assistant TO them, she shouldn’t be running at their beck and call for such a menial task.
    Would I do it in her position though? Yeah, I probably would have made the damn coffee. Gah. I just don’t know!

  8. Evil HR Lady

    I honestly don’t understand why everyone is upset over coffee. If the boss asked you to “run down to the supply closet and get more pens” would that elicit the same bitterness? It’s a drink, for goodness sakes.

    At my office, every department has a coffee pot. When people have guests in their offices, they might ask an admin to run get coffee. It’s polite and it allows the meeting to continue. Generally, though, I’ve seen people offer to get coffee.

    For the record, I don’t drink coffee and have never asked anyone to get me any, ever. I have, however, asked for paper, pens and various other menial assistance.

    And if I knew my boss would be crabby without it, I’d bring her some every morning.

  9. Jackie Cameron

    I love this. I once had a co-worker (we were both senior managers) from another office who asked me to make him coffee when he came to my office. He always had his coffee made for him at his own office ( he was the only male on staff there – hmmm).It said so much more about him than he realised! Did I make him coffee – what do you think?
    I am not taking the gender line here though. I am wondering what kind of boss would write it specifically into a job description?

  10. Rebecca

    Regardless of how the bosses treated her and how she feels about fetching coffee, the lawsuit alleging that it’s inherently gender biased is stupid, and the judge was absolutely right to throw it out.

  11. Tea drinker

    This whole coffee problem is the reason I decided, over 30 years ago, not to even start drinking coffee. If I didn’t know how to drink it I didn’t know how to make it, right? — tho I didn’t foresee the Starbucks explosion, which means assistants have to go get coffee, not make coffee.

    But even about getting the coffee, I work in the public sector and if I got caught sending an assistant out for coffee on taxpayer-paid time, I’d be in trouble. It is, essentially, a personal favor along the lines of picking up someone’s dry cleaning.

    Historically there is a gender related expectation about women making coffee for men. Is there now? Don’t ask me.

    Now I shall go make myself another cup of tea.

  12. Anonymous

    There are people in this world (and I see many of them in this board) that see nothing wrong with, “get me those pens,” or “could you make me some coffee?” or “put some scotch tape on this for me” etc. These types of people love giving orders and always strive to put co-workers in servant role types of positions. They usually possess very small minds, zero creativity, no self-confidence, and believe that making themselves appear more “powerful” will boost their status in the company. I have worked for and with many of these types in various businesses and they are complete dweebs. Hold your ground against them, stay away from them, and by all means, avoid working for anyone like this.

    1. Pamela

      What if they are the ones actually running the entire company. These days, it’s the high level executives behaving this way. It’s not the lower level managers. Most of them have mothers and grandmothers that have taught them how to treat a lady. What really gets me is the high level, woman who likes to push the executive assistant around. The thing is I would not mind making coffee out of the goodness of my heart but when I am told I have to do it, guess what. I no longer have that desire in the goodness of my heart. Doing it to help out when I see everyone is having a busy, rough day and I know they need it, I don’t think twice. But, the one or two people that drink the last of the coffee and sit the empty pot on my desk and expect me to get right up and go make more because I am the execuive assistant and they are high up on on org chart just doesn’t do it for me. May I need to make a pot with some happy pills in it and see what happens. Not really…just dreaming…..

  13. Anonymous

    Mimi said
    I am a coffee go getter. My Office is on the ground floor, my boss has his office on the second floor.I lose count every day how many times I go up and down those stairs running errands for him. He calls me on my extension could I come to his office then when I get there he asks me for coffee, why can't he ask me when he calls my extension, that infuriates me. The best one is he is in a meeting he calls me into the meeting and asks for coffee' no problem ' I deliver the coffee, he then turns around and says oh I wanted mine in a mug. I can not express how hard it is for me to say nothing.

  14. Kat

    Hahaha!

    I have my whole career thanks to my willingness to get/make the coffee! In my last semester of college, I decided the LAST thing I wanted to do was teach, but I had NO idea what I did want to do, so I sucked it up and finished my degree and figured I’d temp through the summer and then decide what to do. The first call I get was for data entry, and I turned it down because it was too far away/low paying (this was ten years ago, better economy!), then they called me back 10 minutes later and asked if I’d be interested in an Executive Assistant position with the same company (which technically, I was grossly under qualified for) for a much more reasonable salary, but the catch was that I had to be willing to make the coffee. My agency rep wasn’t sure if it was every day or for meetings, I just had to make the coffee, the last person wouldn’t/couldn’t do it, so they quit.

    Being fresh out of college, I said sure, I figured making coffee would be a “paying my dues” type thing. So, I show up for my first day and the first thing out of my mouth is, “Where’s the coffee pot? I was told I needed to make the coffee?”

    Of course, it turns out that the other temp was crazy, they’d never asked her to make the coffee…the real issue is that there was no set tasks or anything for the job, you needed to be a self starter, and figure it all out on your own and ask questions, and know when to just be quiet and work. So what was supposed to be a summer job has turned into a 10 year (so far) career with 2 promotions and a decent salary (more than I would have made teaching although, less time off)!

    All because I was willing to make the coffee… :)

  15. Anonymous

    It’s always interesting to me that people keeps saying: What’s a big deal about getting coffee, that’s what you do when you are at an entry level.
    But what about when your position is an Executive Assistant like mine that doesnt’ really have a carrer path? I never had to get coffee in my past jobs, except for the very last one, with a boss who was very high maintenance like Mimi’s? All day long as I was busy getting her water, coffee (a few times a day), lunch, etc.
    My current boss wouldn’t even dream of asking me to get her lunch, let alone coffee.
    I’d be interested to hear from other EA’s about this topic

    1. Pamela

      I’m a high level senior executive assistant and on the first day of my new job I was given the “making coffee” talk. I also clean up after everyone who makes messes in our kitchen from dripping and spilling coffee all over the place. They just leave it for me. Mind you, these are all very high level executives who should have more class and manners than that but I have been caught off guard by some of thei behaviors. I thought we won these battles in the 70’s. I haven’t made coffee or cleaned up after by boss in 25 years. It is very insulting to me.

  16. Melanie

    Seriously, you don’t get the gender powerplay here? I agree it should never have come to a lawsuit, but still…

    There’s a vast difference between an assistant making her or his own coffee and making the bosses at the same time (‘I’m making coffee. The usual for you?’) and the ‘Girl, make coffee. Quick. Jump.’ vibe I get here. Good bosses, I have found, will be aware of the potentially icky power dynamic with the traditionally female assistant or reception roles (both situated firmly in the pink ghetto, as they say), and make sure their behaviour to their assistant is always respectful. It really depends on whether you see your assistant or receptionist as a valuable employee who can partner with you to add value to your business with her skills and experience, or simply a menial dogsbody to jump when you say ‘Jump!’. Also, in my experience as an executive assistant and, later, as a manager, I have observed distinct differences in manager’s attitude and expectations when it comes to female assistants/receptionists (traditional and still most common) vs male assistants/receptionists. Not all managers, certainly, but enough to say that we are not living in a post-sexist society.

    Now, maybe in specific the instance above you could argue it was a fundamental difference of values and ‘fit’. The employee wasn’t comfortable with the company culture, and her employers consequently saw her as uncooperative and having a bad attitude. It would have been better for the woman in question to handle the situation professionally (although that word is too often used as code for ‘don’t make a fuss’) and simply serve the coffee, look for another job and move on, right?

    Yes and no. Perhaps she handled the situation in an inflammatory way, but I don’t think it was fundamentally wrong for her to make her employers aware that their coffee-making expectations made her uncomfortable and could be perceived as perpetuating a sexist dynamic. The real question is: Would these employers have hired a male receptionist (i.e. had they EVER previously hired a male receptionist) and, if so, was coffee making explicitly part of his duties?

  17. Nobody touches MY coffee

    I am a movie director, and I am far too much of a control freak about my coffee to dare allow anyone to make it for me. They’ll never know the exact way I like it. Why give them the chance to ruin my morning?

    P.S.: another director, Martin Scorsese, happens to be the complete opposite. At his office at Sikelia in New York, Scorsese screaming at and firing young female New York University interns for not telepathically sensing how he wants his coffee prepared and the exact second when he wants it in cup in his hand is legendary. Ask the professors in Cinema Studies at Tisch if you don’t believe me.

  18. kathy

    In the 70’s when women’s rights were at the forefront of political debate, making coffee for the boss was the line drawn in the sand. Women could not hope to break the glass ceiling as long as they were perceived to be qualified only for subservient roles. I am appalled that after more than 30 years we have come no farther than this. Making coffee and doing household chores is demeaning to anyone who considers themself a professional. If you want a receptionist that sits at the desk doing her nails, then you will probably get one that won’t kick about making coffee. However, if you want that receptionist to be a professional and a active member of a team, then she (or he) should not be relegated to coffee maker. Yes, it’s a simple job, but it also holds a great deal of weight in the scheme of things. Be a good boss and don’t condescend to the receptionist or anyone else in your office.

    1. Ask a Manager Post author

      Lots of professionals make coffee and do “household-type chores at work, particularly in small offices. Someone has to do it and if the office isn’t big enough to hire someone dedicated to those tasks, it’s going to fall to a “professional.”

    2. Pamela

      I could not have said it better. I just started a new job and right away I got the talk about making coffee and cleaning up our breakroom kitchen. I don’t even drink coffee or use the kitchen. It is very demeaning. My husband doesn’t even make me fix coffee for him so why do my bosses think that is OK?

  19. Camille Myers

    If you own your own business, and you state in the advertised job description that you expect someone to get your coffee, and then, in the interview, you ask about getting your coffee, then yes, if they accept the job, they should fetch your lazy butt coffee.

    However, if you work for the local, state, or federal governments, and your job description doesn’t include coffee fetcher or hostest, the tax payers should not pay for someone to fetch your lazy butt your coffee.

    I would quit my job before I would fetch your coffee. Now if it was a matter of my boss offering me coffee and I do the same, yes. That is fine. If you are young and dumb or old and stupid, keep fetching your lazy boss coffee. Otherwise, grow up or get smarter and tell your boss to take the coffee and job and shove it.

  20. T

    I HATE my male boss to tell me to go and get him coffee!! But I stop and think, Calm down, you get paid $45,000.oo to get him coffee. So, I bite my tongue.

  21. Pamela

    Expecting your secretary/administrative assistant to make coffee and clean up after everyone who drinks it is offensive, especially when that person does not drink coffee. What’s wrong with the coffee drinkers making coffee for themselves and cleaning up after themselves. I can’t believe in 2013 this is still something that people discuss.

  22. Anonymous

    If it is your job- hostest or such- sure.
    A good manager of resources would need to determine if paying me $68 an hour should be spent on getting his coffee.
    A good manager of resources would think better.

    Some bosses have an issue with their being a boss. They have no clue.

    I don’t ask my subordinate to get my coffee. I offer to get hers and she offers to get mine. We are a team.

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