Remember the letter-writer in July who was highly allergic to dogs and discovered that her new office was full of them? Here’s the update.
Right after I wrote to you, HR bought me a HEPA air purifier for my desk and announced that dogs had to be washed regularly to cut down on dander. I’m not sure how they planned to enforce it, but one woman who is very well liked announced that her dog had a skin condition that meant it couldn’t be washed often. HR told her that the dog couldn’t be in the office for “medical reasons,” and EVERYONE blamed me. People made comments to each other as I walked by about how I “discriminated” against a dog with a medical condition, how much I must hate dogs, how selfish I am. After a week, one person came into my cubicle where everyone could hear and demanded to know why I worked here when I clearly wasn’t a cultural fit. I had been ignoring the comments and trying to take the high road (was that the right move, Alison? Should I have confronted them right away?), but this was too much. I told her that I was a good fit – I had a strong background in teapot design and a passion for optimizing teapot handles. I reminded her of the times I had helped her brew new tea flavors above and beyond my job. I said that regardless of anything else, I’m here to help produce the best teapots and that I want us all to work as a team to achieve that.
Within 10 minutes, HR sent me an invite to meet with them, and when I arrived there were all three of our HR people – including the director – as well as our company’s lawyer! They wanted my statement on a “workplace incident” – they said that someone accused me of yelling at another employee. I hadn’t raised my voice at all; I was actually proud of how I calmly said those words and my voice didn’t even shake. I told them about the comments and how I was starting to feel like this was a hostile work environment based on my medical condition. The HR rep said that my allergies weren’t covered under ADA and that they wanted to help me work there because they liked me, but that one person was not worth damaging a strong company culture.
While this wasn’t entirely moral, I heavily implied that I’d consulted two lawyers who disagreed with her ADA assessment and that firing me could lead to a lawsuit. I didn’t talk to a lawyer; my comment was based off of the two lawyers who you quoted in your blog post. They decided to “reevaluate the situation,” and it was basically swept under the rug. I don’t know if they spoke to some of the people who made comments, but those stopped within a day.
I wish I could say it got better, but it didn’t. The company then announced that we were going from cubicles to an open floor plan to promote communication between teams. They banned dogs since we were in a temporary work space for three weeks as they ripped up the carpet and put in new desks. The day before we came back into the office, they sent around an email that said that dogs were no longer allowed due to 1) the open floor plan (no way to contain them) and 2) the new carpet (there had been so many accidents that the old carpet was smelly and gross) but that they had negotiated a discounted rate with the local doggie daycare. It’s normally $33/day, but they got the rate down to $22/day. People were up in arms – if this was the middle ages, there would have been pitchforks. They didn’t openly blame me and no explicit comments were made, so I thought it would be OK. I was wrong.
Instead of outright comments, it became subtle things. I was no longer invited to standing meetings and when I pointed that out it was explained away as an “oversight.” I was excluded from new meetings about teapot design that I was integral to and when I found out about them and asked, I was told that teapot handle design wasn’t changing (but it did in the mockups – someone else was doing my job!). If I sat at a table at lunch, everyone at that table was suddenly not hungry and would leave. I would go home and cry; it was like being in high school, but when I brought it up to my boss, she explained that they were oversights or mistakes and that I was blowing things out of proportion. She seemed so sincere and I felt like she was really trying to support me. I felt like I WAS blowing things out of proportion.
One day I was in a bathroom stall, and I heard my boss and two other coworkers enter. They loudly talked about me, about how my boss was looking for a replacement for me, and how I would be gone soon anyway and then they would petition for the dogs to come back. My boss then said “(CEO) didn’t like the smell of the carpet after dogs had accidents and there was that flea problem last year, so even when is gone it won’t happen, but she ruined a great situation and I want her gone for that reason alone” and then they all laughed. Before any of you ask – it’s illegal to record someone without their knowledge in my state, so I didn’t pull out my cell phone, but I did note the names of the people. My close friend (and one of my only supporters) was also in the bathroom and agreed that if needed, she would testify on record about overhearing that conversation.
I did mention in the comments that my mother was terminal, which is why I didn’t feel I could move to another city with more job opportunities. Throughout the past few months, I’ve been searching but I was having problems answering “why are you leaving your current job so soon?” Eventually, I told one hiring manager the truth and he confided that he is also severely allergic to dogs and that it would never happen at his company (a small start-up). He offered me the job the next day. It was a slight pay decrease, but included stock options and surprisingly better health benefits! I took it and started a week later.
I was so upset about the whole situation that I called a meeting with the company lawyer, HR department, and my boss. I gave notice, saying I was leaving immediately with no transition period due to the hostile work environment. I reported what my boss had said and named the people who were also in the bathroom. When she tried to deny it, I told her I had a witness willing to corroborate everything and she then claimed that I was taking her words “out of context.” At this point, HR and the lawyer asked her to leave the room. I told them that if there were any issue with my paycheck or backlash against me (including defamation), I would bring a lawsuit. We agreed to what they would say if they were contacted as a reference in the future, I got it in writing (!!), they cut the check within minutes, and I left right away. I’ve only been at the new job a few weeks, but it’s a great environment so far and I have high hopes.
There were many questions about why I didn’t see the dogs when I was interviewing. My interviews took place in the front conference room directly off of reception. I was never anywhere near the cubicle farm to see any dogs. A few people also said that if it were their company, they would see it as unfair to lose the dog benefit. I hate to take those comments personally, but it had the ring of “blame the victim.” Maybe I’m bitter, but your “right” to have your dog lay next to you while you fiddle away at your computer does not trump my right to breathe. This wasn’t just a discomfort; if I’d missed a dose of medication or grew more sensitive over time (which my doctor said was happening), I could have had a massive reaction that could have caused serious damage or death. I think many of the readers – and my coworkers – ignored that.
Thank you to your readers who gave their support, to the two lawyers who gave me free legal opinions, and especially to you for doing the research and giving me the information I needed to get out of that bad situation. I don’t know what would have happened in that first meeting with the lawyer and HR if I hadn’t had that information. I’m still very angry about the whole situation, but I’m trying to let it go and move on.