our employee says she’s not comfortable having her desk near men

A reader writes:

I work in a department of about 100. We are a slight majority female, maybe 60/40. Recently a desk opened up just behind a woman who has worked for us for over a year and we moved a new employee, who is male, into the empty spot.

Shortly thereafter, the woman approached her direct supervisor to say that based on some past trauma, she isn’t comfortable sitting so near a man all day, and she asked to have her desk moved. Is this reasonable? We’re empathetic to her feelings but she never made us aware of this need, and we may not always have the ability to avoid seating a man near her. We typically fill every seat available when we hire so even if we can find a spot that isn’t by a man, we could end up having to seat a man near her again if there aren’t other desks available. Are we obligated to accommodate her?

My initial reaction was, basically, no. You wouldn’t accommodate someone who asked not to sit near someone of a different race, regardless of the reason. And even if the trauma piece moves this into the realm of a medical accommodation (under the Americans with Disabilities Act), your accommodations can’t require you to violate other laws (like assigning seats by gender would do).

But we’ve got dueling laws here, so I wanted to bring in an actual employment lawyer to answer this. Employment lawyer Donna Ballman, author of the excellent book Stand Up For Yourself Without Getting Fired says:

This is a tough one because we are dealing with potentially conflicting laws. First, if she is claiming a disability that requires this separation as a reasonable accommodation, the company must look at possible Americans With Disabilities Act compliance. However, the company is also prohibited from acceding to requests to engage in sex discrimination by Title VII.

I think the answer is probably a relatively simple one, since it sounds like the request was not an ADA request, but simply a preference. Had the request been made with a doctor’s note for an accommodation for a disability, or if she had said it was an accommodation for a disability, that might trigger disability accommodation concerns. Once an accommodation request is made, the employer must engage in the interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation for the disability.

However, undue hardship is a defense to an accommodation request, so I think the employer in this case has an argument that requiring them to engage in sex discrimination is an undue hardship. Therefore, the employer might argue that the request is for an unreasonable accommodation.

The inquiry doesn’t end there though. Just because the specific accommodation is denied, the employer must still engage in the interactive process to determine a reasonable accommodation. So the question I’d ask, if this were truly a disability accommodation issue, is what causes the disability to be triggered? If the employee’s psychologist says it is male voices, then maybe a headphone would work as an accommodation. If it is aftershave smells, maybe they can ask the employee not to use the aftershave. If the very existence of a male in the workplace triggers the employee, then there is probably no reasonable accommodation. But sometimes being creative and having a serious discussion with the employee and their doctor might allow a truly reasonable accommodation to be reached.

Bottom line: Where it isn’t a disability accommodation request, there is no requirement that the employer even consider a discriminatory request. Indeed, the request must be refused. If there is a disability that needs an accommodation, even though engaging in discrimination is not reasonable and is a hardship on the employer, there may be alternative non-discriminatory accommodations that could accomplish what is needed to allow the employer to perform their job duties.

I asked Donna, “Doesn’t the employer have an obligation to treat it as an ADA request even if the employee doesn’t specifically frame it that way, if the employer themselves believes the employee has a covered disability?”

Donna’s answer:

Yes, if the request causes the employer to believe a covered disability is involved, that triggers the interactive process. In this case, maybe the request did, but based on the way it was phrased in the question it really sounded more like a preference than a disability. The logical next question would be whether there was a disability that needed to be accommodated.

So, no, you cannot assign seating based on gender, period. Translated into advice for this letter-writer: Explain to the employee that federal law prohibits you from assigning seats based on gender, since that would be sex discrimination, but ask if there’s anything else that might assist her in feeling comfortable and focused at work. And then, especially the situation is presented as a disability, work with her to figure out if there are other accommodations you can make, and begin that interactive process with the hope that it might lead to a solution that works for her, doesn’t violate other laws (as her initial suggestion would do), and doesn’t create undue hardship for the organization. (And if you have trouble finding that solution, make sure you have a lawyer advising you before you give up — because what normal people consider “undue hardship” doesn’t always match up with what the law says.)

* I make a commission if you use that Amazon link.

Read an update to this letter here.

{ 430 comments… read them below }

  1. Sloan Kittering*

    I letting people swap seats is often a whole thing for open office spaces, because they think it will open a can of worms where everybody will want to move away fr0m annoying coworkers or towards windows. I wonder if it’s having him behind her, where she can’t see him, that is distressing. Perhaps the desks could be angled or faced differently. I know it stresses me out to have people walking behind me and doing things behind my back – I had to learn not to twist wildly around in my chair all day, trying to keep an eye on the people sneaking up on me.

    1. Caroline*

      I thought the same thing – I don’t like people sitting behind me, and I imagine experiencing trauma would exacerbate that feeling.

    2. Dog Person*

      I do not like to sit where I cannot see behind me. In a restaurant, I like to sit next to the wall with my back to the wall in order to see the dining area. I would not like someone sitting behind me because they could see what I was doing and it would feel creepy.

      1. Antilles*

        I do the exact same thing in restaurants and have for years. There’s no logical reason whatsoever for it, I just feel much more comfortable if my back is to a wall or (alternatively) at least facing towards the majority of the restaurant.

        1. Anonymosity*

          Same here–I always sit where I can see the door, etc. It comes from the San Ysidro McDonald’s shooting in 1984, which freaked me out so much that to this day, I feel uncomfortable with my back to everything. I will actually ask people to trade seats or move.

      2. Allison*

        I feel that, I also hate sitting with my back to a high traffic area, where stressed out people are constantly rushing around right behind me. I’m sure they’re too busy to evaluate (or care) how hard I’m working at any given time, but it still makes me nervous. To have it set up where there’s always someone behind me would be extremely nerve wracking.

        1. Lissa*

          Same here! I wonder if this is a widespread enough preference that it would be hard to accommodate because most people would feel this way, or not? I feel like a lot of people discuss various reasons for the feeling but have never heard anyone express an opposite preference…

          1. designbot*

            yes, this is a widespread preference. We typically put either a) the people who are at their desks the least, or b) the youngest employees who would benefit from a little discipline in this area facing with their backs to walkways. But not everyone thinks about it that hard.

          2. Safetykats*

            That’s where the ADA issue becomes important. Obviously almost everybody has a preference as to seating. I love a window – but that’s not enough reason to give me an office with one. A documented diagnosis of claustrophobia, such that I could not reasonably sit in an inside office with no window, would be. In this case, if the employee in question has PTSD or some similar protected illness, her seating preferences are actually needs and an accommodation should be considered.

            What the employment lawyer failed to say is that the law does not expect an employer to be able to diagnose complicated or non-obvious disabilities or illnesses, or even determine appropriate accommodations for them, without the help of a medical professional. If you have an employee with an obvious mobility disorder, the appropriate accommodation is clear and you’re expected to provide it. If you have an employee claiming a disability you have no way of verifying – and mental illnesses are cited as examples in discussions of the case law – you are well within your rights as an employee to require a medical diagnosis and to consult with a medical professional in determining appropriate accommodation.

        2. Ozma the Grouch*

          I used to not care, but once upon a time I worked in a position where it was my job to monitor and attend to our companies social media accounts. A higher up “spotted” me “slacking off” on my computer on “more than one occasion.” Well, my current supervisor at the time was so eager to get rid of me that of course he just jumped to the conclusion that I was indeed spending all my time on my personal FB and Twitter accounts. It never even occurred to him that I could possibly be doing my job. “How long does that social media stuff even really take? Like 5-10 minutes of your day right?” This was in the earlier days of Social Media management, now I believe it’s a job that people take much more seriously. I mean some companies have entire departments dedicated to handling it. But ever since this incident I’d just rather NOT have other people constantly looking over my shoulder while I’m working and possibly getting me in trouble because they don’t understand modern Marketing.

      3. Loose Seal*

        I never felt one way or the other about it until my boss and coworkers and I were trying out a new restaurant in our square and, while I was seated with my back to the aisle, the owner came by and stood behind me while asking how we liked our food. He chatted for several minutes while starting to massage my shoulders. I was in a frozen state of disbelief so I didn’t say anything. Until another part of his anatomy started pressing into my back as well. Then I lurched up and darted into the bathroom (which was luckily one room with a lock on the door). I texted my boss to say I wasn’t well — because I didn’t want to make a scene — and to come get me from the bathroom when they were leaving.

        After we left, I explained what had happened. They had seen the shoulder massage but were also flummoxed and didn’t say anything at the time. When they heard about the other, well, they spread the word around town for women not to eat there. It was out of business in three weeks.

        1. Gazebo Slayer*

          WHAT?! WOW.

          Well, that’s what happens to your business when you *assault your customers.* Good God, what even is the thought process there?! Not “just” a disgusting creep but a disgusting creep with no sense of self-preservation.

    3. Tardigrade*

      That’s a good thought about the positioning. At least ask if she has some seating preferences, knowing that men work with her and obviously have to sit somewhere.

    4. SoCalHR*

      That is what I was thinking too, the “desk behind her” part may be an issue, even though it doesn’t sound like she phrased it as such. Also I wonder if there is a man in the office she is friendly with and sitting near him wouldn’t be as bad as a new, unfamiliar employee. I agree that unreasonable attempts at accommodation aren’t needed, but this is one of those things that if the company can do something about without too much drama, they should.

      1. Wintermute*

        At this point any attempt to simply move him would be gender-motivated, and toeing into dangerous ground in terms of discrimination. While the EEOC most directly targets “adverse actions”, you’re on shaky ground any time your actions are entirely motivated by someone’s protected class status.

    5. Wakandan Murderbird*

      I was going to suggest the same thing — when my anxiety and/or PTSD is acting up, I can get very hypervigilant, and having my back to a wall helps a LOT. If the employee is uncomfortable around men, having one close behind her could make her especially on edge. Moving the desks around so she feels more in control of her space is a relatively simple fix that could make a big difference.

      1. SisterSpooky*

        OP here- we have accommodated a combat veteran who was uncomfortable with his back toward open spaces by putting him with his back to the wall, but that didn’t involve who we sat him by or whether we could move certain people near him so it was a bit easier

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          The “behind her” thing definitely stood out to me too. I think that’s an easier issue to solve for if it’s the root of her concern.

        2. fposte*

          That might be a useful part of the interactive process, though; you outline possibilities that you can give. Maybe she hasn’t thought of those.

          I really appreciate your willingness to consider accommodation in both these cases, btw. Open plan seating is hard for a lot of people and it helps to have a sympathetic manager making it work better.

          1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

            I agree that you should over her this alternative. “We can’t assign seats based on gender, but we could offer you a seat that backs up to the wall so that no one is behind you, do you think that would make you feel safer?”

            1. WillyNilly*

              I too immediately picked up on the “behind” position being part of the problem. I think this offer and choice of wording, is very good.

              1. LG*

                Same here! The ‘behind her’ part jumped out at me, and I like this wording because it shows the employer isn’t ignoring her request, and is offering a potential option as well.

            2. always in email jail*

              Agree with this. Also, can she have the now-vacant desk and the new person can have her current desk, so she’s behind him and not the other way around?

        3. Mystery Bookworm*

          I wonder if you could suggest this accommodation to her? The gender ratio in your office isn’t so significant, so I think it might be worth examining why this concern is acting up now (presumably she sees and interacts with male colleagues regularly) and even if she didn’t explicitly identify it, it might be the fact that the seat is behind her.

        4. Dr. Pepper*

          I’d start off suggesting that. She’s not going to be able to get away from men, but she might feel a lot more comfortable if she can see them all and nobody is spending significant time in her blind spots. I too can get very twitchy when I can’t see what’s going on behind me, and I far prefer to sit with my back to the wall. If someone I didn’t feel safe around was constantly sitting where I couldn’t see them, I’d have a hard time focusing on my work.

          Safety, or rather *feeling* safe is largely an illusion, and small tweaks can greatly improve it. Humans are very visual creatures, and often if we can keep an eye on our environment, we feel a lot safer.

          1. Jadelyn*

            In this vein, even if it’s completely impossible to fix the “man sitting behind her” problem, perhaps putting a mirror up that lets her see behind her would help? I did that at one cubicle job I had, where the door of my cube was right in my blind spot and people kept scaring me when they walked up. I bought a cheap mirror to clip onto my monitor and it helped immeasurably. Did it actually change the fact that people could walk up behind me? No. But having the extra visibility gave just enough illusion of control over my space that I could relax.

        5. Washi*

          Yeah, I think similar to that situation, you could offer to permanently move her to a different desk that is different from her current desk in some respect (back to the wall, has higher cubicle walls, different etc) and tell her that you’re willing to consider a variety of accommodations that would allow her to feel comfortable regardless of who is sitting nearby.

        6. Anonyish*

          Just swap the woman and the man over? Then he’s not behind her, and you haven’t agreed to her not sitting near men at all, just made it more comfortable for her to do so if that’s the reason.

      2. Jadelyn*

        Same – we just did a big shuffle around of our offices and while I’m sad to have lost my private office, I got to call dibs on a corner spot in the new shared office that puts my back against the wall and I am approximately a million times happier now. The issue could be much simpler than “don’t have a man sitting near her” if the real issue is “don’t have him sitting *behind* her”.

    6. a good mouse*

      If that is the case, something like those wide angle rear view mirrors for desks might help her feel more comfortable, since she could always see behind her that way.

      1. Batty Twerp*

        I have one of those. It’s great, as long as I happen to be using the monitor that it’s positioned on (multiple monitors, and if I put it on the other one all I would see is me!)
        I used to be sat near a door, now I’m more exposed near the middle of the office, but the wing mirror and no draught has meant it’s a small improvement. (very, very small)

    7. Lynca*

      Honestly my first thought was that it’s likely because he’s behind her. I agree that’s something that maybe could be changed by re-arranging desks without messing with seating assignments.

    8. Snark*

      In general, I think it’s good to arrange desks such that people aren’t being approached from behind, mostly because absolutely nobody likes to be startled.

      1. Sloan Kittering*

        Sigh. From your lips, to God’s ears. I feel like with the trend towards open offices, having your back to the room is increasingly common and it does still stress me out even after several different jobs where this was the case. I can handle it but it’s definitely not what I would choose.

        1. Snark*

          And there are so many reasons why people wouldn’t like to be approached from behind! It’s not even necessarily a trauma thing, or an anxiety thing – for a lot of people, it’s a “I don’t want people coming up from behind and startling me” thing or a “I hate the feeling of people reading over my shoulder” thing.

          1. Mystery Bookworm*

            Yeah. I hate it, and I have no trauma or anything. I just don’t like people behind me. I think it’s pretty common; my sister is a restaurant hostess and she always comments on how if you let people choose their own tables, they’ll just fill out all around the walls and windows.

            1. Clorinda*

              That’s probably why so many restaurants build in low walls and divisions, so they can reduce the number of open-all-around tables.

              1. media monkey*

                i feel like that is really common in places i have been in the US, but definitely less common in Europe. i live in London and can’t think of many restaurants with low walls. i think we perhaps go less for “booth” type seating. never thought about that before. how interesting!

          2. JHunz*

            I have absolutely no trauma causing me distress when there are people behind me – but I still can’t stand it. I don’t even necessarily mind having people read over my shoulder, but the possibility of them doing it when I don’t even know they’re there is extremely offputting. Luckily I’m senior enough at my current position that when we were moving to a different office space arrangement I was able to pick one of the spots with my back to a wall.

          3. only acting normal*

            It’s a “I may technically be an apex predator but there are still things with big teeth and claws that can sneak up on me” thing.
            Humans are both predators and prey animals, they instinctively don’t like having their back open while their escape route is blocked (by a desk).

        2. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          Yes! My back is to a bunch of people and it is a constant source of stress for me all day. It isn’t high level stress, but it is there all day long. When I go sit in a corner of the lunchroom it’s like a weight falls off my shoulders. I wish people who planned out offices would think more about things like that.

        3. Persimmons*

          It’s basically SOP in cubicle-land and yet so terrible. People in departments with confidential info have to use those terrible screen filters that make their eyes go crazy, people who are just wired to be jumpy are always on edge, another workplace shooting in the news puts group tension through the roof…and so on, and so on.

          1. CMart*

            YES. I like my little half-wall cubicle, I don’t mind the semi-open nature of the office, but I can’t for the life of me understand why this is the setup when I work in Finance/Accounting and a information is proprietary, if not outright confidential, from group to group. No matter where I position my monitors, they’re on display for anyone walking by to just casually glance at.

      2. Victoria Nonprofit (USA)*

        Totally agree, but with small cubes as the standard in most offices it’s hard to even image how that could work.

        1. Sloan Kittering*

          Plus how how the higher-ups get to pile their offices by the windows, if they didn’t group the peons in the middle of the room??? :P

          1. RabbitRabbit*

            That’s one thing I have to give our Big Boss (my great-grand boss, basically) credit for – he had the architects redesign the space in our new office so that us cube-farm peons got the windows, and managers got windowless private offices.

        2. Niki*

          Not something you’d hope to deal with if people are trusted to get on with their jobs, but I’ve definitely worked in places where managers deliberately position themselves behind their reports so they can keep an eye on their screens and make sure they’re getting on with work (or, you know, looking blankly at screens that look work-like from however far away the manager is sitting).

          I have no issue with sitting with my back to a restaurant etc. but in my current hot-desking set up I try to get a seat where my back isn’t to the room because it makes me feel like I’m being monitored constantly. Which is particularly ridiculous because I have a completely flexible working arrangement including being at home as much as I want and my manager works from home hundreds of miles away, so nobody’s is watching me!

      3. SusieCruisie*

        I think you’ve hit the nail on the head, is that most likely everyone would prefer to have a desk with no one seated behind them, and I worry that if this accommodation is offered up to this employee without engaging in the interactive process, the visual for all other employees is that this employee asked and was given a seat without anyone behind them. And if we are in agreement that most employees would prefer the same thing, you’ve set yourself up for a bunch of potential requests for desks with no one behind them. This is the potential black hole of accommodations without a documented disability. I’m not suggesting its reasonable or right to ask for more information from this employee, but I would certainly want my documentation in order as to why this accommodation was made and why it cannot be made for every other employee without a circumstance that requires it. Does that make sense? I just wouldn’t want every employee to see this employee getting the perceived benefit of a desk backing a wall when they cannot have a similar set up. Disabilities are confidential, so this potentially opens a can of worms.

        1. MusicWithRocksInIt*

          Maybe if a ton of people come forward and say they would be more comfortable if they were less out in the open the higher ups would start to think about how a different office set up would make their employees happier and more productive.

          Though I don’t see that they need to explain at all why she was moved. People get shuffled around for all kinds of reasons. I doubt they announced why they were putting the person with PTSD with their back to the wall.

        2. Natalie*

          I worry that if this accommodation is offered up to this employee without engaging in the interactive process, the visual for all other employees is that this employee asked and was given a seat without anyone behind them.

          I’m not sure how you’re envisioning the ADA process working, but in my experience it isn’t usually public to other employees. So one way or another, the LW could end up moving this employee with other employees wondering why. I think you just have to deal with any hypothetical complaining or questions if and when they come up.

        3. Wintermute*

          This is the biggest reason employers illegally deny ADA requests all the time “if we do it for you…”

          You cannot consider that. If an employee asks why someone else got something they can’t have, your only response should be a professional but curt “none of your business” (of course more polite and professional than that, naturally).

      4. BritCred*

        I had a desk which had the main route out of the office behind it and one day was sat with my legs crossed and was sorting paperwork on a knee. The health and safety guy comes past, scoots down to squeeze my toes with no warning… I was lucky to not react, kick upwards and cause him injury. Apparently he was checking if my shoes were steel toe cap for the factory floor… at which explanation I leaned under my desk and said “that is what THESE are for!”

        When I was talking about returning to work after a long absence I’d picked up a considerable issue with overactive senses and anything behind me or being touched unexpectedly and requested that when I was well enough to return my desk would be moved so my back wasn’t to an area often walked through.

        1. BritCred*

          (Note: I had a pair of steel toe caps under the desk.. bought by the company. Apologies that wasn’t clear!)

    9. Panic!InTheOffice*

      THIS! I have PTSD and having people (especially men) behind my desk would be an issue. Luckily in my line of work I’ve been able to position my desk pretty much however I want, which is ALWAYS with my back to a wall. I also sit in the last row at every meeting, in movie theatres, etc.

      OP- What this person is asking may be a lot- I don’t know much about your office space- but is there a way to get the woman into a back corner seating arrangement? Seeing her desk neighbors, as well as limiting the number that she has, may be really helpful for her, if it’s possible.

    10. Falling Diphthong*

      Agree on behind maybe being the relevant aspect here–if it’s possible to seat her so no one is behind her, that might address the past trauma without singling out one group.

      Broad scale, I don’t think you can accommodate someone by agreeing to keep them away from category X of people, barring their being physically allergic to them–she can ask not to sit near anyone sprinkled with cat dander, but not rule out people based on race, ethnicity, gender, accent, political views, etc. But there might be a more narrow accommodation to make here for the employee vis a vis anyone sitting behind her, and if it’s easy to do that I think they should.

          1. Wintermute*

            National origin, race, disability, there are a number of protected classes that cover how someone talks.

    11. Not Today Satan*

      Yeah, as someone with PTSD having people behind me is particularly distressing. It’s possible that moving her to a spot where her back is against a wall would be better.

    12. Quill*

      I hate people behind me (also have PTSD…) and have in fact whacked more than one person with whatever was in my hand at the time when they came up behind me and tapped my shoulder to get my attention.

      When I had a cube I did most of my computer work with my back to the cube wall. It helped – and considering how distracting open offices already are, turning her around should be an accommodation that the company should be prepared for.

    13. Not A Morning Person*

      It is certainly possible that having someone behind her is uncomfortable, but that was not her request or complaint. And if I am reading correctly, there was already someone sitting at the desk/position behind her. It was only when the assigned that desk to a man that she brought it up. So most likely it isn’t just having someone behind her since that was already the way her desk was positioned.

      1. blackberry*

        I’m sure that having him behind her exacerbates the problem. It isn’t the whole problem, but turning her around would very likely help.

  2. Snark*

    My feeling is that the safest course of action is to treat this as an ADA accomodation, as much as doing so strikes me as faintly ridiculous.

    1. fposte*

      I think it’s tempting with a third-hand narrative to fall into framing it as ridiculous, but I also can see situations where I’d be a lot more sympathetic, especially since I’d know this person face to face. A rape survivor, a refugee who’s experienced a ton of violence, whose friend or family said to her “Hey, maybe you could ask to be moved so it was like the old arrangement again–that worked for you, right?” That boils down to pretty much the same thing, and I’d consider that a reasonable request, ADA or no, even if I couldn’t grant it.

      1. Snark*

        Oh, no no, I don’t mean that her stated reason is ridiculous! I just mean that it seems like a hassle to have to go into the interactive process for something that kind of got sprung on you, that you don’t know if it’s just a preference or an actual accomodation request, and which never got brought up when she was being onboarded. Maybe I could have picked a better word – I’m reacting more to the vagueness and timing of the request, not the need.

        1. fposte*

          Ah, yes, I see. And I think I want to amend my assessment to an understandable request rather than a reasonable one.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          That’s fairly common, though. In situations like the one OP has described, many folks seeking accommodation don’t realize that that’s what they’re doing. They don’t identify as having a disability, so it never occurs to them to raise the issue. In other cases, they’re worried about bringing up their disability in the workplace (and dealing with stigma) if they feel they can get by without having to do so. There’s also the possibility that the employee had not experienced trauma when she started but has since had an experience that’s extremely triggering for her.

          Basically, employers know that the ADA can come up at any time, and it’s better for them to think about the interactive process as a collaboration than as something the employee had to tell them during onboarding or as a burden that’s sprung on them.

          1. Les G*

            This. For anyone reading this who is new to the workplace, I really want to push back hard against the idea that raising a serious issue (especially if it rises to ADA accommodation levels) at *any* time is ever, ever ridiculous. Workplace safety is no joke.

          2. It's Pronounced Bruce*

            Absolutely. Tammy Duckworth recently said, about mobility-related accessibility, “the truth is that everyone is just one bad day away from needing accessible options the ADA requires”

            Even if this was something this employee was dealing with when she started there, if she was sat in an area that didn’t cause her any issues then it makes sense that she wouldn’t bring it up until there was an issue.

        3. MechanicalPencil*

          The timing could be for a number of reasons that seem odd to us but could be very real to her. Maybe there’s a court date coming up or an anniversary of the event that caused the trigger. Maybe she saw someone who resembles the person (presumably). The generic anxious feeling comes and goes for me, but certain, highly specific compulsions do not.

  3. Dino*

    Is it possible that the employee would be comfortable sitting behind a man but not with a man sitting behind her? I have some trauma and am very uncomfortable sitting in front of men but don’t mind sitting behind them.

    1. Bea*

      I have acquaintances who have issues with their backs to anyone and try to avoid it. So this could be a possibility. You feel less vulnerable when you don’t worry about someone sneaking up on you.

    2. Goya de la Mancha*

      That was my though too. If she’s never had any issues before now, it could be because all of the other men have been in line of sight and she’s able to “brace herself” when in contact – with one behind her, she’s “bracing herself” all day long, that would be draining both physically and mentally.

    3. Whit in Ohio*

      That’s still moving someone based on their gender. So it’s still illegal. Basically, if I understand the lawyer’s advice correctly, she needs to be the person that moves, not the man sitting behind her. And not both of them.

      1. Sally*

        I wonder if it’s a problem if both of them are fine with swapping desks and if there’s no objective advantage to one location over the other.

    4. Bacon Pancakes*

      Or perhaps merely flipping her desk so she is facing him (depending on the seating configuration)…?

    5. Orange You Glad*

      This. Having someone sit BEHIND me who makes me feel uncomfortable based on trauma is a different sensation than them sitting in front of me.

      I’d ask her if moving her to into a corner desk with her back to a wall would help?

  4. John Rohan*

    But again, to bring up the race comparison – if an employee had PTSD because they had previously been assaulted by a member of a certain race, could they claim that as an ADA disability and insist the person be moved?

    This is why I am not a fan of expanding protections like this – they are well intentioned, but the more you add workplace protections into law, the more you are going to have issues of conflicting “rights” to the point where even employment attorneys have trouble giving a definitive answer about what to do.

    1. Ask a Manager* Post author

      But that’s exactly the point the answer makes — the law says you don’t move people based on race or sex, period. But they can see if there are other things that would help.

      1. It's Pronounced Bruce*

        Is there anything stopping them from moving her, though? I get that moving all the men around is problematic, but couldn’t they just try to move her somewhere that’s already configured in such a way that she’s more comfortable? Which might not necessarily be an area that’s all female, but more like somewhere she’s got no one behind her or only one adjacent desk or something like that.

        1. Wintermute*

          Yes, it’s still acting based on someone’s gender, which is prohibited.

          ANY time your action is motivated by the protected class, in this case gender, of anyone involved, you are at extreme legal risk, moving her versus moving him doesn’t really matter in that case.

          However re-arranging the desks themselves without moving her away from him is a viable option, probably, so moving them from back-to-back to face-to-face or side-by-side is a decent option.

      2. JSPA*

        Some questions.

        1. wouldn’t the ban only apply to forced moves / moves under pressure? That is, would it be in any way problematic to offer all people whose desks would work for the woman in question, the option of switching to the desk of the woman in question? Is it a problem if the first person in question happens to be…the new guy seated behind her?

        2. If one or another gender is, statistically, put at a disadvantage by a shuffle, does the law come into play? I would guess not, but I don’t know.

        3. given that there are no other open desks, what mechanisms would be permissible, for a forced desk switching: random draw? By seniority? (I was once switched from one end of a room to another because a co-worker had a not-yet-anounced pregnancy, and her spot was close to an immovable source of smells. Nobody could tell me why I had to move, only that it was necessary, that I had to do it ASAP, and that as the junior person, I had no standing to argue.)

        4. What’s the legal risk that any of the above could have the effect of “outing” the woman’s specific issues?

        You didn’t mention this, but in any org, there’s usually someone (or several someones) who are vocally eager to move desks for some reason. (Drafts, gum-chewing person nearby, perfume incompatibility, etc). Seems to me that there might well be a woman surrounded by women who’d fall in that category…but I’m not sure how to broach the subject without making gender an issue.

    2. lisalee*

      Is it really a problem to not have a definitive answer? IMO, the worst case scenario is that dueling laws force a more in-depth discussion about what to do, which is far better than not having legal protections. In the case above, there might not be an easy, quick answer, but that doesn’t mean its impossible to find a solution for the employee that also respects the need to avoid sex discrimination.

      1. Ask a Manager* Post author

        But I want to make sure it’s clear that there is a definitive answer: You cannot have an accommodation that violates a civil rights law. So this accommodation is not possible, but you can look for others.

      2. Jess*

        In the case of dueling laws, yes it could be a big problem. The worst case scenario with dueling laws when there is not a clear answer is that the employer is left open to legal liability no matter what it does. It’s true the law will never be crystal clear about what is required in any given circumstance, but you don’t want to make the correct conduct a coin toss. What incentive is there for the employer to put in the effort to comply with the laws if either choice could result in liability? And if a conflict between laws like that was well known or common enough, it could also incentivize employers to avoid hiring people who might have additional special protections under the law so as to avoid being put in such an impossible situation.

        It’s easy to say we want to protect a given group and write that into the law, but ideally we also want the law to have it’s intended effect without a lot of unintended consequences—especially when those consequences could hurt the very group we’re trying to protect. Legal protections aren’t always better than nothing when a law isn’t written with care to how it will interact with other laws and human behavior in real life.

        1. Trout 'Waver*

          Yeah, but the legal liability is really quite low if the company in question acts in a reasonable fashion according to the advice of an attorney.

          1. Ask a Manager* Post author

            Yes. In this case it’s really not complicated: The employer cannot make an accommodation that would violate federal law, so they talk about whether there are any other accommodations that would work.

            1. Bea*

              And people seem to forget if you CAN’T find reasonable accommodation for the ADA claim. It’s not a court case. Whereas if you violate someone’s civil rights by engaging in sex discrimination, you do have a lawsuit.

              There’s nothing hard here except the discomfort and emotions involved in having no lawful and reasonable accommodations for the ADA request.

              1. Call me St. Vincent*

                What? That’s incorrect. An employee may sue an employer for illegal discrimination under both laws! You can totally sue under Title I of the ADA after you go through the EEOC. You have to go through the EEOC for sex discrimination as well. Both require a right to sue from EEOC. It’s literally the same process, different laws.

                1. eee*

                  ah, but she means that the ADA requires you TRY to find a solution that’s reasonable–and if you can’t find a reasonable request, it’s acceptable to not accommodate them. Vs there is no scenario where it’s acceptable to discriminate.

            2. JSPA*

              the law says you can’t move him because of his gender (or because someone has a problem with his gender).

              Presumably you also can’t ask someone else to move because of the gender of the people around them…or can you? (In that the gender of the person BEING MOVED isn’t in any way relevant: you’d move a man surrounded by women, or a woman surrounded by women). It seems to lie within the letter of the law, despite the fact that if this move were being made iteratively (and always for the same reasons), it would end up creating a gender segregated office.

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          “The worst case scenario with dueling laws when there is not a clear answer is that the employer is left open to legal liability no matter what it does”

          But there is a clear answer for this situation. “No, we cannot assign seats based on gender.”

          Now, as always, the ADA (if there is a disability here, and if the disability rises to the level of ADA protections) requires a conversation about accommodations, and so the OP would need to talk things over with the employee and see if there is any *legal* and not unduly burdensome accommodation that would work. But that won’t be “move seats so that no men sit near me” because the law *is* clear about how that is a big ol’ bucket of no.

          Also, though, lthe idea that civil rights or disability law is somehow unique in that regard? No. It’s not unique (Again, here, the issue of gender seating is clear – but the bigger picture it seems you are making.) Laws all over the spectrum of existing laws in the US have wiggle room, discretion, differing interpretations, gaps, conflicts…. I work in corporate law, dealing with the IRS and tax law and employee benefits, and we have conflicts and vagueness here. It’s not something specific to civil rights law such that we need to make a big issue of All the Special Rights of “Those People” Make Life Difficult For the Rest of Us.

    3. Snark*

      I see your point, but I am not particularly onboard with how you’re framing it as a problem with expanding protections. We’re a long way, in this society, from sufficiently protecting people. The problem is not the protections, it’s that the protections have been slowly phased in over decades, and so there’s conflicts that a more comprehensive policy could have avoided or provided resolution for.

      1. Lawtistic*

        Agree 100%. Just because two access issues conflict doesn’t mean they’re not equally valid or shouldn’t be accommodated. I’ve worked in a place where someone had a service dog, but another employee had an extremely bad dog allergy. While it was certainly challenging to address, the workplace found a way to accommodate both employees’ needs.

      2. John Rohan*

        If you feel we are a long way from sufficiently protecting people, I am curious what a sufficient policy would look like to you. As it is, there are an overwhelming number of employment protections in Western Countries, and that tends to favor the large corporations and crush small businesses, who generally can’t afford dedicated legal teams.

        1. Snark*

          In general, I think our current protections are a problem in that they are piecemeal and incomplete, and I think a comprehensive and more inclusive single policy could provide a framework to resolve a lot of conflicts like this without having to resort to an employment lawyer for clarification, for example.

          And I simply think it’s ridiculous to assert that the protections we have now, or additional protections for classes of people not currently sufficiently protected currently, are so onerous as to crush small businesses and require dedicated legal teams. It’s just not so. If your business is so tenuous that it’s put in existential danger by accomodating disabilities, racial, sexual, and gender minorities, and other folks who legitimately need protection, your problem started before the accomodations. Small businesses without legal teams are able to comply with these fairly reasonable requirements as a matter of routine, and they are not onerous.

          1. Cordoba*

            I’ve found that small business are often faster and more flexible around accommodations than big companies are; thereby reducing the chance that any lawyers will be required at all.

          2. John Rohan*

            It’s far from “ridiculous” it happens quite a bit. One specific example is the Obama administration interpretation of ADA to require all swimming pools in hotels to install lifts for wheelchair access. It’s a piece of very expensive equipment that would be seldom used, if ever. Large hotel chains can absorb a cost like that or file legal appeals against implementation much better than a locally owned hotel can.


            1. Snark*

              “Overlawyered” is presenting a very biased, ideological take on things, and the comments verge on repellent, so if you’re getting your ADA information from there, I’m not surprised you’re being this strident.

              Pool lifts are $2-5k. Even for a small hotel, that’s a pretty reasonable cost, and a small part of the overall operations budget, even before you write off half the cost of that equipment on your taxes – which operators have been able to do since ADA was passed. Not sure where you’re getting the impression they wouldn’t be used, because the mobility impaired are not exactly uncommon.

          3. fposte*

            Additionally, in most states, very small businesses are exempt from these laws; Title VII and the ADA, for instance, only apply to employers with 15 or more employees.

        2. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          Based on evidence/facts, at least in the U.S., your last sentence simply isn’t true.

        3. Lara*

          “there are an overwhelming number of employment protections in Western Countries”

          Every single member of any minority would disagree with you. I am a member of 2-3 and in reality, none of those ‘protections’ are worth spit.

        4. Mike C.*

          That’s a rather one-sided view of several things. You don’t need a dedicated legal team to sort many of these issues out, and the more complicated interactions don’t happen with smaller groups simply because there aren’t enough people for the interaction to occur in the first place.

    4. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I think you may be arguing against a different point than what Alison suggested? And the laws at issue are not “expanded” protections—they’ve been on the books for decades (and in Title VII’s case, a half-century).

      Folks often have to deal with conflicting laws in the workplace, but that doesn’t mean that the laws themselves are bad policy. Just because something is difficult to navigate does not mean it’s bad.

      1. John Rohan*

        Well the answer was “work with her to figure out if there are other accommodations you can make”, which can mean a lot of things.

        I’m asking would even this vague statement be acceptable if it was a request based on race instead of sex?

        1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

          As distasteful as it sounds, yes, the statement would be acceptable if we subbed “race” for “sex.” [Although note that gender-based policies and race-based policies are subject to two different legal standards, in which there is more leeway for policies that have a disparate impact on the basis of gender.]

          I also don’t think “figure out if there are other accommodations” is a vague statement. Alison has already ruled out the employee’s requested accommodation as unlawfully discriminatory, and I agree with her and Donna on that conclusion. But there are other accommodations that are considered reasonable under the ADA, and that’s what was recommended. And as Donna notes, “reasonable” does not, and cannot, include accommodations that discriminate on the basis of a protected category. The statement has specific legal meaning under the ADA, and it’s something that an attorney can ably help OP navigate.

        2. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Alison’s answer was that you cannot make gender-based seating plans. She was clear that whatever happens, it cannot involve violating civil rights laws. So there is not a difference between gender and race here, and I think you may be misreading her answer.

          I don’t see how having a discussion about whether there are accommodations that could help and be not illegal and not unduly burdensome is a problem.

        3. Yorick*

          The answer gave examples of what other kinds of accommodations might help in this situation, so I’m not sure why you’re acting like you have no idea what that could mean.

        4. Observer*

          It would be the exact same thing – look at the language that Donna Ballman uses. It’s totally neutral to the type of discrimination used. The bottom line is 1. You cannot discriminate. and 2. You probably need to see if there is a non-discriminatory way to accommodate this woman.

        5. hbc*

          If the employee in question asked to not have the new guy sit next to her because she’s a war Vet and his ethnicity is giving her PTSD-induced flashbacks, the answer is the same. You can’t go to a “No [ethnicity] people around Jane” seating policy, but you can cover options like having her back to the wall, more frequent breaks, everyone emailing Jane before approaching her desk, an office, an alternate shift where there’s more space, or working from home. Some of these probably won’t address Jane’s issue, and some of them probably aren’t reasonable accommodations for the company. Hopefully, one option works for everyone.

          If not, Jane pretty much has to look for work where she can be accommodated without the results being discriminatory or unreasonable.

          1. JSPA*

            This presumes the ability to move the desk against the wall–or having a free desk. It’s a good answer to the same question posed in some other situation; not in a situation where the new guy just got slotted into the one open desk.

            At least, that’s how I read this.

            So, let’s stipulate that we may be asking someone to move–for reasons that can’t be explained–and in a way that can’t create a segregated environment nor put an undue burden on anyone who’s been selected on the basis of their gender.

            How would you proceed? As a logic problem–can this be done, within the law?

            1. Yorick*

              Well, they may find that moving Jane will help, but not because it moves her away from men. In that case, you move whoever is necessary, but you don’t have to give them a reason (and if you do, you could tell them it’s for a medical accomodation).

              Or, you can see if any of the other accomodations that hbc suggested would help.

    5. irritable vowel*

      I think it’s fine to consider this request on its own merits, rather than engaging in whatabout-ism.

        1. Observer*

          Exactly. And she made it clear that the response would be the same. So why are you trying to make an issue out of this?

      1. Jess*

        It’s a valid question because it’s the exact same law. Title VII prohibits discrimination based on both sex and race. The law states that you cannot discriminate based on an individual’s “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.” So presumably the answer for sex-based discrimination here would also apply to racial or ethnic discrimination.

        1. Jessie the First (or second)*

          Federal law does prohibit both, which is why Alison addressed it in her response (“You wouldn’t accommodate someone who asked not to sit near someone of a different race, regardless of the reason. And even if the trauma piece moves this into the realm of a medical accommodation (under the Americans with Disabilities Act), your accommodations can’t require you to violate other laws (like assigning seats by gender would do).”

          And because she directly addressed it, it seems strange that John Rohan wants to return to the idea as if it hasn’t been addressed and if this comparison he is making (“aha! What about race?”) undermines the issue. It doesn’t undermine it – it was addressed. You can’t make race-based and gender-based decisions like this. So…. what exactly are you arguing against, John?

          1. John Rohan*

            That was asking a question, not “arguing against” anyone here. You can see my explanation above. I will not repeat it.

    6. Ellen N.*

      Thank you for making that point. I’m perplexed that anyone would consider accommodating someone who wanted to be segregated from almost half the human race.

      In the U.S. religious accommodations are taken very seriously. Yet, I imagine that if the letter writer said that she had an employee who was an Orthodox Jew or observant Muslim who didn’t want to see adult women’s natural hair nobody would suggest that the employee should be accommodated.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        There is a vast difference between accommodating a person’s needs and putting the onus on others to accommodate those needs.

        In this situation, the employee is asking to have her desk moved. In your example, it would be a reasonable solution to seat the employee in an office or a corner where they didn’t have to necessarily see people. It would not be reasonable to require every woman in the place to cover their hair.

      2. LarsTheRealGirl*

        But there’s an inherent difference between a medical accommodation and a religious one. Especially when it comes to accommodating competing legal requirements.

        If you have one employee with a service animal, and someone who is religiously opposed to that service animal, vs someone who will go into anaphylactic shock when being around that service animal….the accommodations are different.

      3. Wintermute*

        There are a lot of people (judging by the legal advice forums I contribute for) that seem to have twigged onto the idea of the ADA as a way to “force” their employer to discriminate to their liking. It doesn’t WORK for all the reasons people have said here and the original response as well, but it seems to be a trend.

    7. Zip Silver*

      Actually my mom ran into this. She was robbed at gunpoint while working at a bank, and for a couple of years afterwards she avoided being around folks of a certain race. Nothing the company could really do to accommodate her beyond disability leave for the PTSD, because she used to work with the general public. She ultimately moved to call center work for another bank.

      1. JSPA*

        This is one of the hundred “enlightened self interest” reasons it’s so helpful to have friends from all sorts of backgrounds, with all sorts of physical traits.

        When something bad happens to you courtesy of someone with Trait X, your mind won’t be as primed to default to “X-trait = scary” if you have a long, warm personal history with other people who share that trait.

        You may still feel a frisson or a full scale panic attack when someone hits a match on several traits at once; but the percentage of people who trigger you will be helpfully lower.

    8. all aboard the anon train*

      Beyond the part where you’re judging an entire subset of people based on one interaction, I think this is a slippery slope. I see people try to use this justification for why they need separate hotel rooms / changing rooms / locker rooms / gyms from LGBTQA+ individuals or why they don’t want LGBTQA+ doctors/massage therapists/personal trainers. They claim they were once hit on/groped/looked at/etc by a queer person and now want all queer people to be segregated, even though the majority of them have never done anything to them, and the issue is more with that person’s actions than their identity.

      This issue isn’t conflicting rights so much as discrimination against a group for the sake of one person, and that’s challenging the laws Alison stated in her post.

  5. Constanze*

    Legalities aside, this kind of request is just not appropriate, and I would seriously reconsider how I would feel about an employee who would deem appropriate to ask me to discriminate against another employee based on their gender. I would seriously reconsider any project or advancement for them because I would seriously question their judgement : are they going to ask not to work with a man next ? Or will they discriminate in their hiring / management practice based on this prejudice ? It doesn’t really matter that men are privileged as a whole, based on their gender.

    It is not only not legal, it is really problematic to have this kind of request made.
    Trauma is not an excuse to exclude an entire gender, just as it wouldn’t be okay to ask not to be seated near black people because you have been bullied by one, or near white women because you have been assaulted by one.

    This makes me really uncomfortable.

    1. BethRA*

      She’s worked there for over a year and hasn’t asked not to work with men, and it doesn’t sound like the OP has seen anything in her behavior to suggest she’s been discriminating against her male colleagues. I get why her request (that she be moved to another location) can’t be accommodated, but to jump to “now we must question her judgement in all things” strikes me as quite an over-reaction.

      1. Constanze*

        I understand what you are saying : she has no track record of unprofessionalism, and in a lot of cases I would agree with you.

        But her request is not minor. It is a huge deal to ask to be seated far from people from a certain gender, whatever the reason. I see why people would be more tolerant because of her reasons, but this strikes me as really unprofessional to think that this could be okay to ask in a workplace and I would be really wary of how she would handle interpersonal relationships and manadgement decisions.

        I would be a huge red flag for me, as would be any single racist / sexist / intolerant request or action, even without a pattern.

        1. pleaset*

          “ask to be seated far from people from a certain gender”

          She didn’t ask that. She asked to not have a man seated behind her.

            1. JokeyJules*

              not at all. He could be seated directly in front of her and she would be fine. that isn’t far at all.

              1. Constanze*

                she isn’t comfortable sitting so near a man all day, and she asked to have her desk moved
                I rest my case.

                1. Jesmlet*

                  I think their point was that there’s a degree of magnitude difference between not wanting to sit directly adjacent to a man, and needing to be seated far away from every man. Not exactly the same.

                2. Akcipitrokulo*

                  It doesn’t matter if it’s beside or behind … it’s not legal to base seating placements on sex.

        2. Sloan Kittering*

          I guess to be fair, she may also have thought that asking to be moved to a different desk was NBD. If our offices weren’t so rigid maybe it SHOULDN’T be such a big deal, although every place I’ve ever worked out has been completely inflexible about where people sit.

          1. fposte*

            Yes, I think it’s relevant that she had a perfectly workable arrangement for a year, which I think makes it feel easily achievable to her.

          2. Chalupa Batman*

            That was my guess-the employee hadn’t needed help to manage her triggers up until now, but this cued one of them that she couldn’t manage on her own, and she hoped that this would be an easy request that would solve her problem. I doubt it ever occurred to her that federal law would come into play on whether it could be accommodated.

        3. bonkerballs*

          But I don’t think this is a blatantly sexist request. First, it makes a difference the genders in the scenario. Plenty of people (and we see it all the time on this site) are under the impression that workplace discrimination laws only protect minorities, as if you can’t discriminate based on race means you can’t not hire a black person for a job, but it’s okay to say I want to only hire people of color in order to give them the chance they’re so often denied in our white-centric world. That sentiment is illegal, but it’s not racist. OPs scenario is similar.

          And truth be told, I don’t think a lot of people would immediately recognize switching a man’s seat with a woman’s as discrimination. Especially if there was absolutely no reason for any one person to sit at that desk and no seat was better or gave any kind of advantage over the other. I think to a lot of people it would strike them as no different than this person’s deodorant bothers me or this person happens to be a loud talker, do we think we could switch them. Clearly when you think about the law it is, and it’s good for people to be made aware of that, but I don’t think we can leap to this is a huge red flag and we need to be wary of this person.

    2. Detective Amy Santiago*

      I think someone who suffered a trauma is likely not considering legal aspects. I would never think less of a survivor for posing this question initially. If they argued against the “we cannot legally do this” response, that would be different.

      1. Akcipitrokulo*

        Very much so. She probably didn’t consider implications, and a kind, understanding chat along lines of “this is the legal position why that isn’t going to happen. Let’s talk about what else we can do to work this out for you.”

    3. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      Trauma can skew your perspective of what’s happening. It’s unlikely that this employee is refusing to work with other men (OP would have mentioned it) or is exercising gender discrimination in their hiring practices. I hear you on feeling uncomfortable with requests that hinge on others’ identities—it can lead down a very nasty road of rationalizing bigotry.

      The request is not appropriate, but the employee isn’t thinking about sex discrimination—the employee is probably laser-focused on addressing the thing they find triggering, to the exclusion of considering other, non-discriminatory options. But I wouldn’t take the request as a sign that the employee is inherently sexist without additional information.

      1. Constanze*

        I get what you are saying, you are right about how trauma can distort your perspective, and it might be compassionate to consider this.

        I hear you on feeling uncomfortable with requests that hinge on others’ identities—it can lead down a very nasty road of rationalizing bigotry.
        Yes, this was my concern.

        1. Tardigrade*

          Fwiw, I too have a hard time reconciling this kind of trigger response with an -ism. It’s definitely not an easy question.

      2. Anon today*

        Exactly. It probably didn’t even occur to her that it would be discrimination if there was nothing inherently better or worse about the various desk options. She probably was just very uncomfortable and thought that there was an easy solution. Her request shouldn’t be accommodated, but she probably just did not have the perspective to see how inappropriate the request was.

    4. pleaset*

      I think it’s unwise to seriously reconsider someone’s judgement because they make one (1) request that you think is inappropriate. The person has worked there a year – there has been plenty of time to examine her judgement. And now you want to so many other things they do?


      “are they going to ask not to work with a man next”
      They’ve been there a year. I would imagine this would have already come up if it was an issue.
      Yes, perhaps keep your eye open for other bad actions, but they’ve been there for a year. Judge them based on the whole – not one thing.

      1. Cordoba*

        I would seriously reconsider a colleague’s judgement if they made even one (1) request to not have a gay person sit behind them simply because that person is gay rather than as a response to any specific objectionable behavior from that person.

        1. Roscoe*

          Yep, or race or anything really. I mean, its easy to say “men have privilege”, but she is literally asking that 40% of the employees of the office not be able to sit there, based on nothing but how they were born. That is extreme.

          1. Snark*

            Men do have privelege. What does that have to do with the fact that this particular request is not legally allowable?

            1. Roscoe*

              I’m just making the point that I think people will try to justify it more because of it. I agree, its totally illegal. However, I think because its against a privileged group, people will probably be a bit more willing to let it slide.

              1. always in email jail*

                Speaking for myself, Roscoe is right. Usually when evaluating requests like this, I flip genders or race in my head to see if my reaction is the same. When I read this, I flipped it to “man requests not to sit near a woman” and was very uncomfortable with that, so I know I would need to treat it the same as if it were flipped (if that made any sense)

                1. tusky*

                  I agree that it’s probably not right for an employer to take actions like this that support gendered discrimination.

                  That said–legalities aside–I don’t think the litmus test should be “would this seem fair if the genders were reversed,” because there are qualitative differences, in terms of impact, between discrimination against women and discrimination against men (owing to the fact that society is already biased in favor of men). For example, it might be fair (again, legalities aside) to have some kind of women-only space/activity/opportunity, in recognition of the fact that women might experience additional barriers to participation. Everybody isn’t on a level playing field to start, so we need to take that into account.

                2. Mad Baggins*

                  I agree with tusky but legally we can’t discriminate on the basis of gender/sex, so I think the litmus test works here. This isn’t about “is it discrimination to have a Women in Engineering support group”, it’s “is it discrimination to assign seats based on gender”. So I think our reaction should be the same as if it were a man who had experienced past trauma and didn’t want to sit near/in front of women.

                3. Relly*

                  And what if the man said he wasn’t comfortable sitting next to a woman because of past trauma? Say, for example, that he’d been gang raped and beaten by women, and now didn’t want to sit by one because it was triggering. I have sympathy for that person the same way I do for the woman who asked, in this letter.

                4. tusky*

                  Right, and taking broader context into account wouldn’t preclude giving similar accommodations to men or deciding that this kind of accommodation just isn’t reasonable.

          2. Relly*

            I think I would feel more uncharitable towards her if it were “I don’t want to sit next to (member of group) because they smell bad / I don’t like their type” and not “because I have past trauma.”

          3. pleaset*

            If you’re going to use the word “literally” she literally asked for her own desk to be moved.

            1. TootsNYC*

              YES! She didn’t ask for the guy to be moved. She volunteered to be the one who “suffers” by having her desk reassigned.

              I’m having trouble seeing this as terribly discriminating toward men.

        2. Anon today*

          I would wait to see how she responds to being told no. If she is shocked and embarrassed that what she was asking for is discrimination, I probably wouldn’t hold it against her so long as it was a one time thing. If she doubles down or is angry to be denied, then it would damage my perception of her.

          1. Cordoba*

            If she is shocked and embarrassed about the request then I might not hold it against her as the evidence of deep-seated prejudice that it appears to be at first. This request might not be rooted in a moral failing; although she’d have a uphill fight to convince me of that.

            I’d still regard the fact that she thought it would be OK to actually *articulate* a request to not sit near somebody because of their gender/race/religion/disability/etc as evidence of poor judgement; even if she only did it one(1){I} time.

            If somebody thinks that way and isn’t going to change they should keep these thoughts to themselves, especially at work.

            1. Not So NewReader*

              Hopefully, the comment comes from fear because of her experience(s) and once she is shown that it works into bias, she realizes that part of keeping a job is being able to work around anyone.
              Sometimes our fear stemming from a life event runs way out ahead of our logic.

              What we would tell people at Old Job is, that X is a pretty common occurrence and one that cannot be eliminated. Most jobs will have X, so the best thing to do is work on helping yourself to find a path. This is a format where X can be any number of things, it could be people, events, topics and so on. We would stress on the fact that X happens or is found at most jobs.

              What happened to her could be a recent event (say last few years) and she could still be finding her path through it all. I can understand that. I can also understand that it is not possible for companies to accommodate every need that is out there.

    5. Dr. Pepper*

      It does seem a bit ridiculous at first blush, doesn’t it? But then, trauma does weird things to people. Despite our highly civilized ways, our brains are still very much the same as they were when humans lived in the wild and we needed our survival instincts literally to survive. Trauma activates the parts of our brains that deal with survival. We survived the Bad Thing and our brain is hellbent on never experiencing that Bad Thing again, often to the point where nothing else matters. This manifests in all kinds of bizarre but very, very real ways. Horribly detailed memories, vivid flashbacks, certain sensory inputs (smells, sounds, sights, etc) triggering that fight or flight response. We often think of PTSD as reserved for combat veterans, and going through anything less than that is “unworthy” of such ongoing psychological problems.

      1. Constanze*

        I mean, you are right when you mention our reptilian brains but :
        – there is no mention of PTSD in the letter, so we can’t base our advice based on that particular assumption ;
        – even if she had PTSD, I would argue that it would not be professional of her to ask to discriminate against a whole gender. It would inform how you break it to her, certainly, but it doesn’t make the sexism acceptable.

        1. Observer*

          Come on. There doesn’t need to be a specific diagnosis of PTSD and the employee DID explicitly say that she’s dealing with trauma.

          1. Anon today*

            Yeah, PTSD is not a leap here. It isn’t guaranteed, but the mention of trauma makes it likely. And no one said that PTSD would mean that they have to accommodate her. In fact, Alison said that even if it is something covered by disability (which would most likely be PTSD in this case) that they should NOT make seating assignments based on sex.

        2. TootsNYC*

          It also doesn’t have to literally be “properly diagnosed PTSD” for it to be something that causes her some suffering, or something that a boss would want to help with, if it wasn’t onerous.

          1. Nox*

            ADA requires proof of medical disability upon request. My employer requires it before we move forward with the accommodation negotiation.

    6. Lara*

      I think you must just not understand how PTSD works. It is not the same as a prejudice. Not remotely. It’s a fear response, induced by a traumatic experience.

      I think it’s pretty problematic, and ableist, to equate PTSD with racism. And even more so to say that you would discriminate against an employee with PTSD for making a fairly banal request to switch desks.

      1. Constanze*

        But we have no idea if she has PTSD. Nothing on the letter says it, and reading more into it, while tempting, would be reaching and armchair diagnosing.

        She is “uncomfortable” with it. That’s it. Maybe you are right and she does have PTSD, but we don’t know that.

        Even if we knew for sure that she had PTSD, it wouldn’t change my answer. Yes, it would probably make me more compassionate to her demand. But PTSD is not an excuse to discriminate. Being “uncomfortable” even more so.

        1. Constanze*

          *even less so

          I would add that trauma =/= racism indeed, but intention doesn’t really matter when the result is discrimination.

          1. Lioness*

            Except it’s likely she doesn’t realize how discriminatory it is. She’s been working for a year here with men making up 40% of the workplace.

            No one is saying they should accommodate this particular request. They are saying to delve deeper into what is making the employee uncomfortable. Is it the sound? The smell? The fact that he’s sitting behind her?

            What is ridiculous is your response to take this employee off of future projects and promotions because she made this request. That is an extreme overreaction to this request even though it’s not an appropriate request.

            1. Anon Druggie*

              She cannot be objective to her coworkers. I sincerely don’t understand why you would say that’s an extreme reaction.

            2. pleaset*

              “Except it’s likely she doesn’t realize how discriminatory it is. She’s been working for a year here with men making up 40% of the workplace. ”


            3. Kathlynn*

              Also, it is discriminatory and retaliatory to react to a request for accommodation by not assigning this employee to certain projects or consider her for promotions.

        2. Amber T*

          Which is more reaching, the idea that she might have PTSD after disclosing she’s had trauma in the past, or after no complaints of her work for the past year, she’s suddenly discriminatory against men?

        3. Detective Amy Santiago*

          It wasn’t a demand. It was a request.

          And I’d say that PTSD is a reasonable inference from the reference to “past trauma”.

        4. tusky*

          It says she made the request “based on past trauma,” so I think it’s splitting hairs to say we can’t consider PTSD or symptoms associated with traumatic experience.

          Also, it matters that her concern is about men, who are a privileged group. Her feelings about men don’t have the weight of institutionalized power dynamics behind them, so while they might reflect prejudice, they don’t result in systemic discrimination (in much the same way that jokes about white people don’t amount to racism).

          1. Jesmlet*

            One can still discriminate and have an impact on the individual level without the power of institutional sexism/racism behind you, and that’s still not okay even if it’s on a smaller scale.

            1. tusky*

              Maybe? If one of the consequences of endemic misogyny and violence against women is that women sometimes don’t trust men, I guess it just seems like a logical consequence.

          2. Genny*

            This doesn’t matter in the eyes of the law. It is just as discriminatory to ask not to be seated next to men as it is to ask not to be seated next to a woman.

            1. tusky*

              I agree, but since we’re talking about whether this kind of request is generally reasonable (i.e. is this something that should make one call into the question the judgement/reliability of an employee?), I think it’s important to differentiate this from the kinds of discrimination that reinforce existing gender or race inequities (and are therefore more harmful).

              1. Genny*

                Discrimination is never generally reasonable though, regardless of how much harm is done. In this particular instance, I wouldn’t think poorly of the woman since she has mitigating circumstances and there’s no indication that this affects any of her other interactions with men. If she weren’t a trauma survivor, then it absolutely would make me think poorly of her.

              2. VictorianCowgirl*

                Your comments are making me uncomfortable in the sense that it seems you’re leaning towards the idea that it’s ok to hurt men because they’ve hurt women for so long and enjoy some kind of inherent privilege. I find this kind of mysandry really problematic and unhelpful on multiple levels, the least of which being that these men in her workplace have not harmed her. We do not get to punish the innocent or turn a blind eye to injustice just because someone the same sex as past perpetrators. If we do, we are now the ones committing harm. We are all in this together, all genders, all humans.

                1. tusky*

                  I’m not advocating for hurting men. I’m asking that we not conflate systemic discrimination with individual prejudice. If I say I’m uncomfortable around men because of a history of trauma, the men around me probably will feel hurt, but they will still enjoy preferential treatment in the workplace (if you don’t agree that male privilege exists, then we may not be able to agree on much). And because gendered violence is so widespread, I think it’s forgivable that some women might feel uncomfortable around men. It’s not misandry to recognize that there are power imbalances along gendered lines.

    7. Jesmlet*

      I think this is a step too far in terms of what conclusions you’re drawing. Would I put this woman in charge of hiring? Probably not. At the very least I wouldn’t want her being the only decision-maker. Would I question her judgement in areas not related to choosing people to work with? Not at all.

    8. Anon Druggie*

      I have to say, I agree.

      I know this is going to be w wildly unpopular opinion, but here goes. It seems like the kind of thing that the employee has the onus to get past. If her desk can be moved, fine. However, I would always have concerns about promoting this person because of her issue with men. Could she objectively manage a man if she can’t even sit near one? Doubtful. If it were me (and I know it’s not, but I have been raped, sexually abused as a child, am a recovering addict and alcoholic, was abused and bullied at home and school for a solid decade, etc. etc.) I would go to therapy, take anti-anxiety medication and anything else I had to in order to avoid making this a thing at work. It’s not a work issue; it’s an issue with the employee and that’s where it belongs.

      1. SarahTheEntwife*

        Why are you assuming that she’s not working on it? She’s been working in an office that’s 40% men for a year, and has just now asked to have her desk moved, something that she may well be thinking of as something that would help manage her trauma reactions without having to inconvenience her coworkers, especially if moving desks is something that’s otherwise not a big deal in this office.

        1. Anon Druggie*

          I didn’t say she wasn’t. My point is that it’s something she should deal with on her own and not a work issue. I don’t think the request is reasonable or rational, no matter what she has been through.

  6. Sue Wilson*

    But she never made us aware of this need I mean, why would she if this wasn’t a problem before? This is probably a pretty fraught conversation to have, OP. “I am uncomfortable when x” doesn’t sound like a preference at all. A preference is when you have two neutral options where one is more appealing. This is a situation in which one option is a clear negative.

    Regardless of the legality (I would definitely consult firm lawyers however), I think it’s kind to see if there is a non-discriminatory way to make the employee more comfortable. You don’t have to ask about the trauma, but it’s fair to say that while you can’t move desks in this way, if employee could present some other options that would make her more comfortable that the company would consider them.

    1. Mystery Bookworm*

      I don’t know if this falls under ‘nitpicking’ wording, but I disagree with you here. I think plenty of people describe themselves as uncomfortable pretty casually.

      I also understand OP’s question. I mean, with a 60/40 breakdown, she must interact with male colleagues relatively frequently, so it’s a surprise that the seating arrangement in particular would trigger it. I think that’s why other people are suggesting it might be the fact that he’s seated behind her. I imagine that OP is also trying to point out that they didn’t seat a man behind her while also aware of this particular accommodation request.

      1. Sue Wilson*

        I mean “uncomfortable” might have varying connotations of intensity, which might explain some casual usage, but I’ve never heard it used in a way that did not indicate that the context from which the feeling sprung wasn’t negative. It’s very much implicit in the word. Obviously nobody is entitled to comfort, but I think what you’re really disagreeing with is my statement that a preference is between two neutral options.

        Regardless, “I prefer not to sit next to men” has a completely different feel than “I am uncomfortable sitting next to men” so much so that a reading that this was a preference doesn’t strike me as accurate (especially within this context of work where the bar for saying this sort of thing casually is pretty high).

        1. Mystery Bookworm*

          Ah, I see what you’re saying. Yeah, I think I was more focused on how some people are more understated and others more hyperbolic to the point that we can’t deduce much on the intensity. But definitely it’s not a neutral.

      2. Anon today*

        People do use uncomfortable to describe a rather wide range, but people do not tend to use trauma casually.

    2. Snark*

      “I mean, why would she if this wasn’t a problem before?”

      As someone who takes advantage of ADA accomodations, I don’t agree. You need to put all your cards out on the table. Talking about my disability is not a conversation I like having either, because people draw all kinds of weird assumptions. I think if you have a problem with half the population sitting behind or near you at work, and you’re going to work in a large open office, it’s on you to proactively make your needs known before it becomes an issue.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        I totally disagree and am with Sue on this. For all we know, the employee doesn’t even realize her request could fall under the ADA. As Sue notes, many people with disabilities do not raise the issue until there’s a problem, and that is a rational and often strategic choice that they have to make.

        1. Snark*

          Even if she desn’t necessarily regard this as a disability for which there are legal requirements for accomodation, it’s a strong preference to not sit in front of/near half the human population. I guess my assumption is that this situation presents itself for resolution fairly often in her life, and when entering a large open office, it would be a foreseeable conflict that one would probably want to get out in front of before desks get reassigned. Maybe those are not defensible assumptions.

          1. Detective Amy Santiago*

            The thing is – she may not be able to articulate that it’s the “behind” thing that is bothering her (if it is). It was the first thing a lot of us thought of because we are able to look at the situation logically. She is clearly in some kind of distress, so likely isn’t thinking logically.

            How she accommodates these issues in other areas of her life is not relevant.

          2. Matilda Jefferies*

            But we don’t know that this situation presents itself fairly often in the employee’s life – it may be the first time she’s worked in an open plan office, or the first time she’s had someone (of any gender) sitting directly behind her. It’s also possible that she is very experienced in open plan offices, and with people of all genders sitting directly behind her, and she has always been fine with it until now, but something about *this* man or *this* seating arrangement is causing her to react differently than she normally would. This situation could be as much of a surprise to her, as it is to the OP.

            It’s a bit unfair to the employee to complain that she never said anything about this before. Things change, and people change, for all kinds of reasons. For whatever reason, she has a problem now, and she’s saying something about it now, and that’s the situation OP has to deal with.

            1. Snark*

              We can debate whose assumptions are warranted without accomplishing much, but I totally agree with your final sentence, which is really all that matters now anyway.

          3. TootsNYC*

            also–why expose yourself unnecessarily to the kinds of judgment and pushback you can encounter when you bring up such an issue?

            It didn’t seem like a problem. Now it is. Sometimes you just don’t know, or you don’t think it will come up, or you figure, “my boss may look at me differently fi I say something pre-emptively, so I’m not going to expose myself unless I really need to.”

            And…the letter says “Shortly thereafter”–I don’t know what that means, but maybe she gave it the good old college try, and realized it was very difficult.

        2. Kathlynn*

          Especially because there is a stigma against accommodations. I’ve lucked out, that my current manager understands that I can’t work in the kitchen, but not everyone I’ve worked with has. My last two managers and our HR rep included, with the horrible asthma flare up I had last summer. (HR rep is so clueless, that she said my manager has the right to demand that I work in unsafe-for-me conditions “because I was hired to work in all areas of the store”. There’s more to the story but that would make this a longer off topic responce.). Luckily something happened behind the scenes, with the second manager, because when he was promoted from assist. manager to manager he never tried to assign me to cook in the kitchen. I was terrified of this.
          And I know other people who, often because they aren’t as fluent with employment laws as I am (I look them up in my free time, for fun and due to frustration), don’t think people should be accommodated at all, unless it’s a safety issue (like it’s okay to cover part of the cost for prescription safety glasses, but not to allow one person to listen to music at work due to ADHD concentration issues).

      2. Sue Wilson*

        And that’s certainly a proactive philosophy, but your assumption of risk is based presumably upon your own judgment of your circumstances. Reasonable people can have a different assumption of risk and I don’t think that philosophy has a general applicaiton. Furthermore, it’s actually incumbent upon the employee to make sure that they need the accommodation in the first place, and as I said, if this wasn’t a problem until now why would she ask for an accommodation she didn’t necessarily know she needed?

      3. Trout 'Waver*

        This is speculation, but I can think of scenarios in which the requester didn’t think it would be an issue until she found herself in the present situation.

        1. fposte*

          Yeah, I think there are lots of disabilities where you wouldn’t bother to raise it if it weren’t an issue. Phobias, allergies, disabilities that prevent you from driving/flying, etc.

          1. Lawtistic*

            +1. I struggle to work in noisy environments due to my disabilities, but I knew up front that I was getting an office with a door that closes when I started my most recent job, so there was no need for me to raise it.

            1. Yorick*

              Right. So if they moved you to an open area, you’d need to raise the disability for the first time and ask for accommodation, and that’d be perfectly understandable.

        2. Countess Boochie Flagrante*

          Right, and to me it doesn’t really feel like that much speculation. Sometimes you don’t know just where your own boundary is until you find it. The employee is obviously in an office with men and finds that manageable, but now she’s got a man sitting directly behind her and that’s not so good. Trauma doesn’t come with an instruction manual; a lot of this stuff can have a serious trial-and-error component to it.

        3. LarsTheRealGirl*

          I literally just ran into a scenario like this. I have a short-term medical issue that requires that I eat at specific times. Normally in my workday, that kind of flexibility is absolutely no problem. It’s a professional role and no one keeps tabs or watches where you go and when, and I can eat at my desk. It would make no sense for me to ever bring it up to my employer in terms of requesting accommodation – since none is needed.

          However, I am taking a work-related certification exam soon and I just found out that testing security requires that we take nothing with us, and that I won’t have any access to food during a much longer stretch of time. In this case, I now had to request accommodation for this specific scenario, even though it had no impact on my work prior to this moment.

        4. Kathlynn*

          Like, I didn’t know until my asthma flared up that I was sensitive to the fumes from deep frier oil. (and now that my asthma is worse, I cannot work near them without an asthma attack.) I also didn’t know that was part of my increased asthma attacks. And I didn’t need to wear a mask to clean until I started working graveyards, and did a lot more cleaning, and closer exposure to the cleaning vapors. (But due to my past job I knew I was sensitive to cleaning products, so my boss was aware that I might need to wear them)

      4. Dragoning*

        It’s possible the employee didn’t even realize this was going to be triggering to her until, well, it happened. Triggers can be like that sometimes.

        Or, for all we know, the trauma was recent and post-employee start date.

      5. Lawtistic*

        I also take advantage of ADA accommodations, but I didn’t always do so, in part because I didn’t fully know what my needs are and what the best way to address them is. People can be late-diagnosed, or assume that something might not be an issue, until it suddenly is. Given the inherent weirdness in having to ask your employer to not seat you near men, I wouldn’t be surprised if the employee tried to make things work to avoid ruffling feathers.

      6. Pollygrammer*

        She knew there was an empty desk behind her. And as inappropriate as her request is, it would have been a little better to ask proactively for someone to not be placed at that desk than to ask that someone who has been assigned to it move.

          1. TootsNYC*

            YES! She is volunteering to be the one who is “negatively impacted” by her request. Is that still discriminatory? I don’t know–does it hurt the guy in the desk behind her?

            Maybe technically–but I have to say, if I were her boss, I’d just switch her around without getting into the reason why.

            1. IDontRememberWhatNameIUsedBefore*

              No it’s not “technically” discriminatory, it is full on illegally discriminatory.
              You cannot base an accommodation in discrimination, and it wouldn’t matter which one was moved. It would still be based on discrimination against gender, and therefore ILLEGAL, not “technically” but FULL STOP.

      7. Observer*

        That’s all good and fine. But a LOT of people don’t put their cards on the table this way for a lot of reasons. Often it’s because they are afraid of stigma 0r (illegal) negative reactions. In other cases it’s because of the difficulty of speaking about it – a common issue with trauma victims.

        The issue is not who is right or wrong, but how common this kind of thing is. And it’s very common.

          1. only acting normal*

            This. I wish I hadn’t had to disclose, but workplace changes meant I needed to. It hasn’t been too bad, but I’ve definitely been treated differently since.

    1. Constanze*

      How is anyone to know ? We are way to removed from the source . The OP has no way to know this, so this is just speculation.

      1. Mystery Bookworm*

        But it’s a useful thought, because it could inform OP’s discussion with with the employee, perhaps if prompted and the employee shares, that helps make the situation clearer, and helps them to find a reasonable accommodation.

        1. Snark*

          I disagree. All we know is that employee stated she had a problem, categorically, sitting near men. If she has a problem with this particular man, she either didn’t mention it or that’s not the case, and all we can do is advise OP on the facts she has access to and which she shared with us.

          1. Mystery Bookworm*

            I mean, we often advise OP’s on things that we’ve experienced or that might be going on based on our own perspectives. Obviously those comments aren’t all directly relevant, and some might be ‘barking up the wrong tree’, as it were, but it seems to me they could be helpful context, if only to underline how complicated some of this experiences could be.

            I’m curious how you see this situation as different?

            1. Snark*

              I guess, honestly, it’s because we were told specifically it was a categorical request, and disregarding that very clear characterization seems like a reach.

              1. Snark*

                When this discussion came up on Friday, I mentioned something about how speculation about gaps between facts presented is often reasonable, but inventing new facts to stack on top of the ones isn’t.

      2. Ask a Manager* Post author

        It’s not something we should derail on because we have no idea, but it’s a perfectly fine thing for the OP to consider in her discussions with the employee.

        1. Lawtistic*

          Exactly. This is why the interactive process is so important! Both employer and employee can gather more information and find a solution that would work for both parties.

    2. SoCalHR*

      Well, he is a new employee, so presumably, how would she have a chance to form an opinion yet? Although I did state upthread that maybe there is a male in the office she is more comfortable with that would be less of an issue if she sat by, considering this is a new employee and unfamiliar.

      1. Persimmons*

        It could be visual. I have seen a friend be very uncomfortable with a new hire because he so closely resembled her violent ex (not like sci-fi doppelgänger stuff, but he could have been a cousin or half-brother). But as Alison says, that’s up to the LW to suss out, and we can’t do much with it here.

        1. Detective Amy Santiago*

          It could also be auditory – maybe his voice sounds like someone connected to her trauma or he has the same name. It could be any number of things that she may not even be aware of, but it doesn’t matter because the advice is the same either way.

          1. not my usual psued*

            Yeah, this. And especially if the employee isn’t super-knowledgeable about employment law, she might feel like it’s less rude to say “no men plz” than “NewCoworker’s voice is eerily like BadMan and it wigs me out when I hear it coming from behind me”.

      2. VintageLydia*

        Depends on the trigger, though. She might initially see it as “men” in general, but it could be something like his hair cut or cologne or stature or something else that may be a reminder of past trauma but isn’t immediately obvious to this person. It can take a lot of work in therapy to drill down specific triggers, figure out why some things only trigger sometimes, etc etc.
        So it doesn’t matter how new this man is, if he shares an arbitrary trait with a past abuser he could still be a trigger in a way another random man wouldn’t be, even if he’s a perfectly kind and ethical person.

    3. Bea*

      As in he reminds her of an abuser? That’s still not easy to accommodate her. It boils down to gender.

      However if he’s a jerk and they have personal beefs, that’s easier to address and accommodate because the problem is “Jim is a dick” not “Jim is a man.”

      So if it’s because Jim is a dick, she should have been up front about it :(

      1. Salyan*

        I agree, and yet sometimes it’s hard to define on what exactly is bothering one about someone else. Maybe Jim is a sexist jerk, but it’s very subtle, or maybe her subconscious screaming that this is a dangerous person, but there’s nothing concrete to put a finger on. It can be easier to define the issue as ‘past trauma’ rather than ‘Jim’s behavior is raising my hackles.’ (Which the OP can’t resolve anyways, but it might be a useful discussion to have.)

      2. Jenn*

        even if if the problem were the specific man, she may still not have an effective way to communicate that to her supervisor. I work in/with a male dominated industry, and am the owner of obnoxiously large breasts. Way more men than I would like manage to tell me they are misogynist a**es within a couple minutes of meeting by ignoring, talking over, smirking, subtly patronizing, or talking to my chest. Often these patterns are subtle enough that I would not be able to raise them with a supervisor without sounding overly sensitive and a bit nuts, but I certainly do conclude that the men who exhibit this behavior are obnoxious to unsafe from the signals they give me. It’s not always a simple he’s fine vs. he’s done something egregious enough to warrant telling my boss.

        1. Julia*

          You, too?
          Sometimes, we can tell within an hour of meeting someone that there’s something really off about them.

  7. Lily Moon*

    Seems like to easiest solution, though I don’t know how much this would violate sex discrimination laws, would be to switch their desks so that he is not behind her where she can’t see him. As long as she’s the one with full-view of everyone, that might help.

    That being said, this woman is going to have to get used to men to a certain extent (I say this as a woman who has dealt with past trauma also). She can’t spend her entire professional life asking that no men ever be near her. It’s just not going to be reasonable (unless she gets medical support and evidence).

    1. Meg*

      Literally came here to say that. I can’t stand having people (male or female) behind me due to anxiety so I get a seat where the only thing behind me is the wall. This is different to anxiety but maybe if she could see him it wouldn’t be so bad.

    2. BethRA*

      But she’s not asked that no men be near her, ever – she’s been in that office, working with men (40% of the office, from what OP tells us) for at least a year and this has not come up before.

      I do hope moving her to a place where no one’s behind her is a viable option, but it’s not clear to me that this still wuldn’t violate the law as AAM is describing it.

      1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

        It might be lawful. It depends on a lot of details we don’t have, but moving the orientation of her desk vis-a-vis others may not be discriminatory.

    3. Akcipitrokulo*

      I think (NAL) if you require someone to do X because of their sex, you’re on very shaky ground.

    4. Delphine*

      That being said, this woman is going to have to get used to men to a certain extent (I say this as a woman who has dealt with past trauma also). She can’t spend her entire professional life asking that no men ever be near her. It’s just not going to be reasonable (unless she gets medical support and evidence).

      I hear this kind of thing a lot in discussions about trauma, particularly in trauma with triggers that people find either difficult to understand or silly. The vast, vast majority of people who deal with trauma and triggers are well aware that they will never be able to avoid their triggers entirely. I am sure this woman knows she can’t avoid men completely.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        And, in fact, has worked in that office that is 40% men without issue for a year and a half so there is obviously something about this particular situation that is causing an issue, but OP won’t be able to pinpoint the specifics without a conversation.

        1. Student*

          I’m surprised people keep bringing this aspect of it up, as if it is proof of her ability to cope. In my office, women’s jobs and men’s jobs are largely segregated. The men can certainly go for long, long stretches with minimal interaction with women, if they so choose. I assume most of the women can also go for long stretches without interacting much with men.

          This kind of request is a pretty strong indicator that she doesn’t cope well with men. Seems so strange to try to bury it with circumstantial evidence instead of recognize it’s, at minimum, a yellow flag.

          Evidence suggests that this particular woman hasn’t learned that she can’t substantively avoid men in a normal job. So she hasn’t learned that she’s got to learn better coping strategies for her trigger beyond avoidance. Sure, most people who’ve experienced trauma are more reasonable than this – but she has made an unreasonable request, so she’s not most people. Explaining this with some compassion and looking for different viable solutions seems like a great strategy, ADA or no.

          I’d also keep an eye on her for whether she treats her male colleagues reasonably, given the extremeness of the request.

          1. k8*

            what do you do that genders are so segregated like that?? i really don’t think that’s normal, but perhaps I’m wrong?

            1. TG*

              I work in marketing, and my team was 3 women for a couple years, with a female director. I still had meetings with men a few times a week, and we reported to a male VP, but 90% of my interactions each day were female. We now have 6 people on the team – 4 women, 2 men – so there’s a better balance. But this can be pretty common in smaller organizations.

          2. Thor*

            Uh, I think you have a really strange gender environment that puts you out of touch with your average workplace.

            1. Student*

              I’ve had blue-collar and white-collar jobs in a lot of different places and in wildly different industries. They have all, without exception, been highly sex-segregated. It’s not at the level of “no interaction between sexes” but certainly “very little substantive interaction between sexes”. Women get the crap jobs, men get the better jobs, and the two don’t need to directly interact most of the time. Women take job type 1, men take job type 2.

              Worked in a clothing store. All women. Including customers. Never saw a man in the entire course of the job.

              Worked at a library. Worked with all women employees. Mixed gender customers, but primarily women. Face-to-face interactions were much more likely to be women, both in duration time and in frequency.

              Worked at a grocery store. Nearly all women as co-workers. Interactions with the male employees happened, but they were usually less likely to be direct – mediated through something like memos, postings, or training sessions rather than direct face-to-face interactions. Customers were skewed toward women. Obviously there were male customers, but again, frequency and duration was overwhelmingly women-to-women interactions.

              Worked at a university in a research group, in a field that’s ~85% male. First group I worked with, all men except me. Professors, all men. The men interacted with me, but I’d go long periods with them barely saying a word to me. I know I’m the only women they were interacting with professionally, so I know they could easily go a week with no face to face job interactions with a woman. Decent chance of them getting, say, email blasts from the female department secretary.

              Second university group I worked with, all women except the group’s head professor – again, I could easily go several weeks without seeing/interacting directly with him. Interacted a lot more with my female team mates than I ever had with the male team mates in the prior group. We’d all basically self-segregated from the rest of the male-dominated field.

              Now, white collar industry professional in the same male-dominated field. The three research groups I work with are heavily sex segregated – most women in group 1, with a small scattering of women across groups 2 and 3 at the ~10% integration level. Lots of women in the “support” roles. I am usually the only woman in the room, unless the room is only women. It’s weirdo, and very noticeable to me. I can go a couple of weeks without directly interacting with any of my colleagues. I strongly suspect most of the men go quite a long time without interacting with women who are on a similar professional standing to them, and I’m pretty sure they have mostly mediated (email) discussions with the largely-female support staff.

              I’d be willing to think it was weird if it was just my most recent job, or just my jobs in my heavily gender-skewed, male-dominated field. But, it’s not. It’s a 20-year job history of being heavily gender-segregated. While I’m glad to hear this isn’t universal, I also wonder if it’s happening to many others and they just… don’t notice they barely talk to people of the other gender. At my workplaces, it’s omnipresent, but nobody seems to really step back and… see it. Like, twilight-zone levels of “This is how it has always been and this is how it is and this how it always will be.”

              1. media monkey*

                interesting! would suggest it might be your specific job choices though – retail or any description/ libraries seems to be likely to be female dominated, and also for the customers depending on the type of retail (women’s clothing presumably?). and then you are obviously in a male dominated field now and in your research career like you say.

                from my point of view in advertising, it would be extremely unlikely to work in a very male or female dominated company and the split is fairly even. some fields (TV buying, some of the more techy areas, data sciences) can be quite male but the nature of the job means there is a lot of interaction between departments.

          3. Close Bracket*

            > This kind of request is a pretty strong indicator that she doesn’t cope well with men.

            I beg your pardon? Her workplace is 40% men. She works there and has never previously asked to be separated from men. Evidence suggests that this particular woman does not have a history of trying to substantively avoid men.

            You’re making a slippery slope argument (“Coworker doesn’t want a man sitting behind her, so she must be trying to substantively avoid men”) based on a straw man argument (“Her workplace is probably largely gender segregated”).

            > most people who’ve experienced trauma are more reasonable than this

            Do you have a citation for this? The nature of trauma means that people do not use reason when around the triggers for their trauma.

            1. Student*

              Go look at basic crime stats if you want citations. RAINN says that (decades ago, 1998) about 18 million American women had been victims of attempted or completed rape. That’s more than 10% of the entire female population in the US.

              Do 10% of women ask at work to avoid men? No. So, most of them are more reasonable about it than this woman. The request is unreasonable to the point of being deeply bizarre. I understand where she’s coming from, but it’s a pretty far-out-there place, and I recognize she is coming from an inherently bad place with an unworkable coping strategy. This isn’t a normal thing that happens to rape victims. It’s insulting and horribly uninformed that you would think otherwise, to the point of asking for “citations” as if you couldn’t find rape victims all around you to ask.

              Further, I’ve actually talked to plenty of other women who’ve experienced this, besides myself. The vast, vast majority of us still interact with men on a pretty darn reasonable basis. Women who think that the proper response to this kind of trauma is to try to avoid men, in bog or small ways, are outliers.

              1. Julia*

                “Reasonable”?? Gee, if only all women could be model survivors and get over their trauma real quick, that would be swell for you.

          4. Turquoisecow*

            I’ve worked in several offices worked offices, with an about even pairing of men and women doing each job. It wasn’t like the executives were all men and the drones were all women, there was (and is, in my current workplace), a fairly even representation of gender in each role. It would be fairly difficult for me, at any of those jobs, to have avoided one gender or another.

            Do you work in an old fashioned lawyer’s office where all the men are lawyers and the women are assistants? But, no, because even that would require some communications between the two groups. I really can’t fathom where you work.

          5. bonkerballs*

            It’s odd that you say in your office “men can certainly go for long, long stretches with minimal interaction with women if they so choose” but also “this particular woman hasn’t learned that she can’t substantively avoid men in a normal job.” How can you have both?

            1. Jennifer Thneed*

              Because they work in an oddball environment, that’s how. They’re talking about “men” in their workplace, and “this woman” in the letter.

          6. TootsNYC*

            Evidence suggests that this particular woman hasn’t learned that she can’t substantively avoid men in a normal job. So she hasn’t learned that she’s got to learn better coping strategies for her trigger beyond avoidance.

            This is a huge leap.

      2. Lily Moon*

        I have my own triggers, so I certainly don’t think anyone else’s are silly or whatever. The only point I’m making is, at a certain extent, what else can you really do?

        I think a lot of this also depends on how the guy reacts to this whole thing. Will he be offended or understanding? Who knows, maybe he’d be 100% willing to do whatever he can to make her more at ease. We really don’t know.

  8. I'm A Little Teapot*

    I think the best option for this employee long term is therapy or other treatment to help her resolve the underlying problem. Will it be perfect? Probably not. But this is actively interfering with her life, which is pretty much the definition of a Problem That Needs Addressing.

    However, that’s not something the employer can do. You can certainly make sure she’s aware of any EAP programs. You can be sympathetic. You can try to make changes that will help, within reason. However, avoiding roughly half the population is NOT a solution, nor should it be. If having a wall at her back will help, do that.

    1. Relly*

      I wouldn’t assume the employee isn’t already in therapy. Therapy is great, but it’s not a magic wand, and it doesn’t work instantly, as much as I think we all wish it did.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Not to mention that it’s also entirely possible that something about this specifically triggered her and she doesn’t even know exactly what it is. That happened to me a couple of weeks ago and I was luckily able to pinpoint the cause of my distress and deal with it, but it’s something that I thought was a long resolved issue for me.

    2. OlympiasEpiriot*

      I’m of this opinion, too. I mean, there are as many responses to trauma as there are people; but, at least in almost all of the places I have lived in my life, the issue of having someone seated behind me — including someone who might be dangerous in my mind — is not a rare occurrence. Perhaps she lives a circumscribed enough life to usually avoid this. But, I would hope that for her own sake she has access to deeper help.

      (I have an individual who I definitely feel a need to have my guard up when I am around, and I do my very best to limit those times. Fortunately, I do not work with him. Also, fortunately, my personal response is very much limited to him and him alone. Occasionally when I see someone at a distance who resembles him physically, I get a little adrenaline surge, but, it dies down when I recognize the persona as Not Him.)

  9. Justin PBG*

    Agree it should be asked if someone being behind her could be the cause. She obviously travels to work and is probably in some situations where this can’t be helped (not calling her need minor or anything!), so I’d say, as others have, start a conversation.

  10. The Body Keeps the Score*

    My recommendation is to approach this with compassion. To make such a request, and by doing so, to disclose such a terribly personal thing, is an incredibly difficult thing. Know that PTSD is not voluntary, triggers make the body react before the mind has a chance to control (if even possible) what is going on in the body. Sometimes we know what the trigger is, other times we will not. Also, something we don’t think about enough, is the societal/community response to such a disclosure/ask for help/understanding. If you approach this without compassion and understanding, then you will most likely re-traumatize her and she will have an even harder time being present and successful at work . Trauma survivors already pay such a heavy price — every single day — for things that were just not their fault. One can live a meaningful life after trauma, but one never stops paying the price… so no matter what you do, use compassion. Take it from someone who’s been in those shoes.

    1. Ender*

      This is what I would like to say as well. It seems awful to force her to accept a man sitting behind her, knowing it makes her uncomfortable all day every day, and reminding her of probably one of the worst experiences of her life.

      If I were the man in question, I wouldn’t want to be the cause of distress to anyone.

      I get that you can’t promise her that you won’t ever put a man near her, but if there is any way you can find to move her to a different position then a little bit of compassion might mean you can find a solution. For example, if you move her rather than him, that would not be discrimination. If you tried to position her so that no one Male or female sits directly behind her that would not be discrimination. If you moved him to a better position, would that be discrimination? If you ever had a personality clash would you consider moving someone? You could frame it as “these two individuals just don’t work well together” and move them apart – though that would only work if that’s something you do for others if they don’t get on.

      Basically, consider if there is anything you can do for her without breaking the law.

      1. Detective Amy Santiago*

        Basically, consider if there is anything you can do for her without breaking the law.

        That is essentially what the advice is.

        1. Ender*

          Ill rephrase: see if there is any way you can get her away from sitting in front of a man without breaking the law.

      2. Genny*

        LW has two problems though. The first is the immediate: a man is currently sitting behind her and she would like for that not to be the case. The second is ongoing: they assign seats as they open. Unless there’s always a better option available, at some point, this situation will come up again. LW needs a solution to both the current problem and the problem that is likely to keep recurring.

    2. Student*

      You’re trying to be compassionate by doing the equivalent of telling somebody with a broken leg that you accept them as a permanent wheel-chair user. It’s not compassionate to do that – it doesn’t actually help her recover to keep her in her wheel chair forever. Even though it might minimize her pain in one way, it hurts her in other ways.

      This is something she can recover from. Trauma isn’t a permanent amputation. Acting like trauma can’t be overcome or recovered from is actually hurtful. This kind of harmful misconception, that traumatized women are somehow permanently broken, has fed all sorts of terrible treatment of women for millennia. Don’t give up on her so easily. Heck, don’t give up on yourself so easily.

      -Trauma survivor who refuses to “pay a heavy price every day” for things other assholes did to me

      1. Yikes*

        Your trauma is not the same as her trauma. It is not helpful or correct to assume that a trauma survivor you don’t even know can somehow bootstrap herself into recovery if you force her to confront triggers before she’s ready.

        Also, please stop using physical disability as a metaphor for what kinds of trauma you think are/aren’t manageable.

        -Physically disabled person and trauma survivor who refuses to be used as a convenient rhetorical device to tell other trauma survivors when and how to recover

      2. galatea*

        This is making a lot of very unkind assumptions about this person and how she’s dealing.

        When I was recovering from some of the things that happened to me, I needed certain accommodations from my friends, from my coworkers, etc — that wasn’t accepting me as a permanent broken bird or whatever, it was the emotional equivalent of putting a broken wrist in a cast until I was healed enough to take it off and start using it again. Recovery isn’t a straight line, emotional and physical responses to triggers aren’t always predictable, etc.

      3. TootsNYC*

        It is not her boss’s place to “help her heal” here.
        She has asked for one specific piece of help.

        That’s what the boss should focus on. 7

  11. McWhadden*

    I wonder if she can find a doctor or therapist who actually supports this tactic to provide documentation. Most studies have found that integration with the opposite sex for abuse victims is very important. And I don’t think many doctors would go along with this being a necessary accommodation at least in the long run.

    Obviously a different situation but this has been a very hot button topic in the world of DV shelters. Many shelters are de facto women only even though that is absolutely not legal especially if the shelter takes money from the federal government (and almost all do.) Which lead to a lot of male victims to be literally shut out in the cold (like on the streets.) This became a big issue in the gay community where gay male victims of DV were being doubly discriminated against. Not necessarily because only men are abusers but because it was organized enough to do something about it.
    (And from the more integrated shelters have been many studies that it has only positive results for both genders.)

    1. Lara*

      Interesting! In the UK, shelters are explicitly separated in terms of gender. They aren’t even allowed to have male employees; it’s a form of sex discrimination protected under law, along with carers for vulnerable people etc.

      1. Anon for this*

        Yeah that seems like a case of equality gone crazy. I have experienced both rape and domestic violence and I think forcing women to share shelters with men in the name of equality is nuts!

        Set up a separate shelter by all means. And have as many men’s shelters as women’s (by percentage of victims – so if you are turning away 90% of female victims you should also be turning away 90% of Male victims).

        1. McWhadden*

          It’s not equality gone crazy. All studies show there is no benefit at all in separating shelters and it actually does a lot of harm.

          1. Uh huh*

            “All studies show there is no benefit at all in separating shelters and it actually does a lot of harm.” Yeah… right.

            1. Anon for this*

              There are loads of women who wouldn’t want to go to a shelter if they knew men were going to be there, so the only women who are going to want to go to a mixed gender shelter are the ones who can stand to be around men. So what the studies are probably finding is that the most traumatised victims self select out of those shelters, and surprise surprise the less traumatised victims do better, so those shelters would do better overall, since they aren’t seeing the most traumatised women at all.

              1. I woke up like this*

                Yup. And shelters aren’t really for long-term healing. Their purpose is to get battered women out of immediate harm so they can eventually work on long term healing.

              2. IDontRememberWhatNameIUsedBefore*

                That’s not just an extremely cynical viewpoint to have (good researchers take those things into account) and also an EXTREMELY LGBTQIA erasing one. Don’t you think a male victim of female domestic violence might also be just as severely traumatized & frightened of women (very possible if they are perhaps of unusually tiny stature or disabled and easily physically overwhelmed, or perhaps unusually large & their abuser repeatedly threatened to report *them* as abusers?) as a female victim of male abuse.
                And what about female victims of female abusers? Might they not *also* be afraid of going to an all female shelter? What about male victims of male abusers, do you think they wouldn’t have any fear about going to an all-male shelter?
                What about trans*, genderqueer, non-binary, & etc people? How do you handle that when you have shelters divided along a strict gender binary? Do you include/exclude them based on how they currently present, what genitalia they possess, how far along they have transitioned, the gender they were assigned at birth? (SPOILER: all of those would be wildly inappropriate.)
                So while I can see where issues could arise with mixed shelters, I can also see solutions for the most egregious, and find it a far better solution than letting countless victims go unheard & unhelped because they don’t fit the narrative of what a DV victim ‘looks like’

        2. McWhadden*

          And discriminatory shelter policies (which aren’t based on any scientific need) also often means separating women from their teenage sons.

          1. Akcipitrokulo*

            Again UK laws… women’s shelters are actually for women and children (gender not relevant) so wouldn’t be split.

          2. MatKnifeNinja*

            The shelters by me put male children over 12 into foster care. They aren’t allowed to stay with the mom and younger sibs. (Live in the US)

      2. Bagpuss*

        That’s not strictly correct. Shelters are not ‘not allowed’ to have male employees (in a shelter for women)but they are permitted to select staff so they don’t. There would be nothing to prevent a women’s refuge employing a man if they felt it was appropriate.
        There are similar exceptions available for other scenarios where a person’s gender or other protected characteristic is directly relevant to the job to the point where it is an essential requirement – so you can potentially take into account gender in recruiting for a refuge which only provides services to one gender, or in recruiting for working with victims of rape or sexual abuse, you can select on the basis of race if it is needed (I am aware of seeing ads where both age, gender and ethnicity was specified, in connection with a role involving working with diverting boys and young men from gang activities, .

    2. Antilles*

      That’s interesting, but I think there’s a big difference situationally. This isn’t her completely refusing full-stop to deal with men, it’s “I don’t want a man sitting directly behind me 40 hours a week”.
      I mean, just look at all the commenters who are saying they have no history of trauma, but even they’d be uncomfortable with the seating situation.

      1. McWhadden*

        I agree it’s different but she hasn’t said she doesn’t want him sitting behind her. She said she doesn’t want a man near her.

        I do think the “well, what if we switch you two so he’s not behind you” is a good next question. But, as of now, that isn’t what the employee requested. We only know it’s behind her because of a bit of background information the OP gave.

  12. 123456789101112 do do do*

    I love this question and answer. It is fascinating to see all of the legal thought that has to be expended around a simple question of seating. Thank you for this, Alison and Donna!

  13. Lara*

    I’m a bit taken aback at how definitive a ‘no’ has been given. PTSD is real, debilitating and disproportionately affects women, especially outside of the veteran community. You could argue that refusing to accommodate PTSD is gendered in a way that negatively affects females.

    Asking for a seat change really doesn’t seem like such a big deal in the context of allowing an employee to feel safe, particularly as the site has encouraged people to ask if they can switch desks over minor issues like coughing or personality conflicts.

    1. Princess Consuela Banana Hammock*

      I’m with Alison that, from a legal and management perspective, the request to move is a definitive no. I am sympathetic to the idea that the employee may have PTSD or other gender-related trauma that is triggered by proximity to men. And I’m sympathetic to the fact that many women are subject to gender-based violence.

      But the accommodation that’s been requested is a nearly textbook definition of sex discrimination. Conduct that is otherwise unobjectionable can become a legal problem if the motivation for that conduct is based on an unlawful/discriminatory purpose. The reason it’s easy to move someone because of a personality conflict is because personality conflicts aren’t legally protected. But the right to be treated equally in the workplace is, and moving people because of their gender is not going to square away.

      That doesn’t mean that there’s no accommodation that would help the employee. It’s just that the employee’s preferred accommodation is a no go.

    2. Amber Rose*

      “You could argue that refusing to accommodate PTSD is gendered in a way that negatively affects females. ”

      Nobody is refusing her accommodation, they’re refusing her that PARTICULAR accommodation. There’s a difference, and it’s an important one. PTSD or not, it’s not practical to work somewhere and never be seated near men, nor is it fair to the other staff to have to undergo possibly numerous rounds of desk shuffle. But there are several practical, more long term solutions that are not gendered, which people have brought up all through this discussion.

    3. AvonLady Barksdale*

      It’s not the accommodation, it’s the specifics of that accommodation. The OP commented above that she has moved a combat veteran who didn’t like to sit in front of people. Needing a window or requiring your desk to be against the wall are pretty easy to understand, but “I don’t want to sit near a man” adds a layer of potential discrimination, which is why the OP needs to tread carefully. As in, I don’t think anyone here is diminishing or dismissing PTSD, or even refusing to accommodate it.

    4. Washi*

      They are not refusing to accommodate PTSD, they are just refusing to take actions that would result in gender discrimination.

    5. Dr. Pepper*

      Yeah, this seems like an actual, legit reason to want to change desks instead of all the “I hate Sally’s perfume” and “Greg is sooo annoying with the nose blowing” reasons most people seem to bring up. I do see how it’s firmly into gender discrimination territory, though. As stated, the request HAS to be turned down. It’s just the law. However, reword that request to omit the gender issue, and it becomes something else entirely. What stood out to me, and many others, was the fact that the man is behind her, in her blindspot, where she can’t see him. Reword it as “due to past trauma, I get very anxious when I can’t see who is behind me, can we work something out?” Suddenly we’re firmly in accommodation territory and out of gender discrimination. That’s what I’d suggest to her and go from there.

      1. Ender*

        Absoltuely! I didn’t realise there was a history of moving people in this office as accommodation for ptsd. This seems like the obvious answer. Instead of saying “she can’t sit near men” you just say “she can’t have someone sitting behind her” and there’s no legal discrimination concern whatsoever.

      2. Holly*

        What you’re comparing is apples and oranges. “I hate Sally’s perfume” is not a request for an accomodation, legally speaking, and also doesn’t trigger gender discrimination.

        1. Dr. Pepper*

          That’s exactly the point. This employee isn’t coming in with the usual problem of “I’m annoyed” or “I’m distracted”. She’s saying “I’m scared”. To me that warrants a different approach. No, her request cannot be granted as such, but instead of just “no, that’s sexist, get over it” I’d put effort into working with her to make her more comfortable. This is not just a personal preference or one of those annoyances that come up in communal spaces. Which is why I think it ought to be taken more seriously. Even if ultimately nothing can actually be done, it’s worth going into. “I don’t feel safe” is a big deal.

          1. LJay*

            But nobody said to say, “No, that’s sexist, get over it.”

            They said that they can’t accommodate the request to move seats based on gender because that’s discriminatory and against the law, but that they should talk to the employee and explore other things that they could do to accommodate it.

            You can take things seriously without doing the one exact thing the person has asked for.

        2. IDontRememberWhatNameIUsedBefore*

          But in the case of ‘I hate Sally’s perfume/Sal’s cologne’, it actually COULD be a request for an accommodation if the perfume triggers allergies, asthma, headaches, or even PTSD (if same perfume was associated with a trauma* of some sort.)
          We can also bring up the fact that no one in an office should be wearing so much scent that the people working at the next desk over can smell them…that’s rude ANYWHERE except maybe a nightclub, and if it bothers someone that it does they are perfectly within their rights to bring it up.

          And besides the concentration issues that can be caused by being seated near someone who continually coughs/sneezes/blows their nose, it would make me, personally, paranoid as hell because my personal respiratory health issues mean that catching what most people would consider a simple common cold and a few days of annoyance is for me, a serious lung infection that means anywhere from 2-4 WEEKS in bed (minimum), antibiotics & prednisone, and OFTEN a visit to the ER. I would NOT be able to handle the stress of working near someone like that even if they were just a fellow allergy sufferer and never actually got sick with anything.

          Holly, I know you weren’t the one to bring those up as “not-legit” reasons to ask for a seat change, but this just seemed like a good spot to point out that not a only are they totally legit reasons even at face value, they can even both be reasons for someone to ask for accommodations AND GET THEM.

          * I grew up with severe allergies & asthma, TO THIS DAY (age 51) I absolutely HATE the smells of fresh cut grass and woodsmoke (like a fireplace) because as a kid they were triggers for some of the worst life-threatening rush-to-ER asthma attacks I have ever had. I haven’t actually had a reaction to either one in something like 35-40 YEARS, and I still detest them. If I worked with someone who wore a scent that smelled like cut grass or woodsmoke every day (yes, they exist) I would ABSOLUTELY ask to be moved!

    6. Jaybeetee*

      It didn’t ping me as that definitive a no – it was a “hard no” on moving the man, with several good reasons provided (civil rights laws, not pragmatic for the employer as even if they move this guy, they can’t guarantee that there won’t be a future occasion where they have a male new hire and the desk behind her is the only free spot). And then a follow-up that maybe they can try to find other ways to accommodate her, not that she was stuck with it. I like the suggestion many commenters here have made that perhaps moving *her* to a spot where no one is working behind her might be the best idea that avoids the other pitfalls.

      1. TootsNYC*

        it was a “hard no” on moving the man,

        But she asked for HER desk to be moved.

        she isn’t comfortable sitting so near a man all day, and she asked to have her desk moved.

    7. Constanze*

      You are assuming PTSD. Nothing in the letter suggests it.

      And a request against Coughing Nelly or Cologne Mike is very different than “I am uncomfortable being near men / women / black people / Jewish people / fat people etc…”. this person is being discriminatory, and of course this request can’t be accomodated.

        1. IDontRememberWhatNameIUsedBefore*

          Aaaand even if it’s diagnosed & documented PTSD with a doctor’s note the request is still discriminatory. Just as it would be if she requested it because her trauma was caused by a woman/Black person/Jewish person/fat person/disabled person and she was therefore uncomfortable around etc etc etc.

    8. McWhadden*

      Well, as Alison explained, there are serious legal implications here. And there should definitely be an ongoing conversation about what accommodations could work. But not sitting her near men is a non-starter.

      I think the suggestion of trying to switch her and the man is an interesting one.

    9. Jessie the First (or second)*

      It’s a “no” because regardless why the employee has asked not to sit near a man, the law does not allow employers to engage in gender-based employment decisions. It has nothing to do with whether the employee’s reason for the request is real. It’s not a statement about the difficulties of PTSD. It’s a statement about what laws on gender in the workplace allow.

      For what it’s worth, though, the PTSD aspect is speculation. We do not know whether the employee has a disability, and if she does, whether that disability is PTSD. (It is possible to suffer trauma and have lingering effects without having PTSD.) Because it is possible that the employee may have a disability that warrants ADA protection, such as, for example, PTSD, it is a good idea for OP to talk with the employee about possible accommodations.

      But those possible accommodations do not include assigning seats at work based on gender, no matter how real, difficult, and debilitating the trauma is, even if done in service to the ADA.

    10. MuseumChick*

      We don’t know that the employee has PTSD or anything other condition that would fall under ADA. She might, but she also might not. The issue here is the reasoning behind the request, which in a legal sense is discrimination based on sex. There are a number of ways (if this does fall under ADA, we don’t know if it actual does) the OP can accommodate the employee that does not involve moving cubes.

    11. GermanGirl*

      Maybe it’s mostly that she gets nervous with him in her back. I’d be irritated by someone sitting behind me, too, regardless of gender. This might be solved by placing a (higher) cubicle wall behind her.

    12. Mazzy*

      I’m pushing back on this “You could argue that refusing to accommodate PTSD is gendered in a way that negatively affects females” idea. What is this based on? That seems a bit….Victorian to me. Men get PTSD disproportionately from war but women can get it without even going to war is what you’re basically saying, which makes us sound weak.

      1. Leslie knope*

        I think the point was that because women are at a higher risk for abuse that could lead to PTSD than men (due to ingrained sexism that makes women more vulnerable etc etc), it seems like it would disproportionately affect women to not accommodate ptsd.

        I have to say I don’t love the answer here either, mostly because I am really struggling to be concerned by gender discrimination against a man. But I realize that’s my own personal issue.

        1. Observer*

          Also, it’s illegal. And that means that the OP really, really cannot do something that’s discriminatory against a man.

      2. Bea*

        Being abused in an intimate relationship or by a random stranger is living in an active warzone for women going through the trauma. So no. We’re not weak. We’re MORE LIKELY to go to “war” than the amount of men who are enlisting or being drafted.

        Nothing about PTSD is about weakness. It’s their brain trying to protect them with the hardwired fight or flight mechanism in our brains.

    13. Genny*

      I would caution against the line of thought that “this isn’t a big deal”, when the “this” is discrimination. No, moving desks isn’t akin to being overlooked for promotions or being refused service, but discrimination should never be normalized, no matter who it affects or how big of a thing it affects.

  14. nnn*

    I’m a bit surprised by how prescriptivist this answer is, focusing so much on the employer’s legal obligations.

    I think OP should ask themselves: what would happen if the employee didn’t give a reason for wanting to switch desks? For example, what if simply asked “Can I move to another desk?” What would happen if the employee asked “Can I take that desk over their that just came free?” What would happen if the employee asked “Can Jane and I switch desks?”

    Then you should make sure that, however this plays out, you don’t end up making it more difficult for her to switch desks than it would be if she simply asked to move without giving a reason.

    1. AvonLady Barksdale*

      It’s very rarely that simple, though, at least in my experience. I once switched desks in my own cube area and it involved bringing in the movers and IT. Kind of strange and silly, but there were all kinds of logistical reasons why I had been sitting in one place and procedure had to be followed for me to move to another place.

      Reasons can be important. “I like that angle better” or “Jane annoys me” is a different thing from, “This desk triggers my PTSD.” Also, when someone’s gender is brought up as a reason not to be next to that person, an employer absolutely has to consider the legalities and consequences.

    2. BRR*

      But that’s not the situation. The LW knows the employee is asking because they’re seated near a man and accommodating the request is illegal. The LW can’t just imagine the situation with removing the illegal aspect to it.

      1. Antilles*

        Right. Once the illegal reason is on the table, it’s out there; OP can no longer pretend that is not part of the decision.

        1. serenity*

          I agree. And this is an employment blog. When legal matters relating to employment come up, of course the majority of solutions proposed will be prescriptive. It would be irresponsible if they weren’t.

    3. McWhadden*

      But she didn’t just ask to switch desks. She did base her reason on gender. And the employer cannot just ignore that this is inherently a discriminatory request now.

      And chances are if she had just asked to switch they would have said no without a further thought. Desk shifting tends to open a whole can of worms and is best avoided. The only reason it’s even being considered at all is because she gave her reason for the request.

    4. Detective Amy Santiago*

      It does no good for the OP to consider how they would have responded to this request if they hadn’t provided the reason since they did provide the reason and that opens OP and the company up to legal liability issues.

      I would venture a guess that most companies are not okay with their employees randomly switching seats though.

    5. Holly*

      The employer’s legal obligations are essentially *all* that matters here – remember that those same obligations protect employees.

    6. Lioness*

      Except with this request it won’t necessarily be a one time desk move. It might come up again and again. You’re examples for alternative requests all imply a one-time move not a reoccurring problem that is also a violation of another law.

    7. Bea*

      As a manager or supervisor the company not acting in an illegal manner is their first priority. Then their staff being as comfortable as possible to do their jobs.

      Without doing things by the law, we jeopardise everyone’s ability to work.

      You cannot pretend you didn’t hear the part about moving to be away from a person due to their gender. You can’t selectively hear anything in regards to laws unless you like playing with fire and are willing to purger yourself one day.

      I feel for the woman and it breaks my heart she’s in this situation. But our rights end where another’s begin. The male coworkers can’t be discriminated against. That’s the end of it.

        1. Snark*

          Yep. The law is specifically written to avoid the “but does it really affect {group} if they’re separate but equal” rationalization having any currency – not that I’m saying that’s your desire at all, of course.

          1. Ender*

            I don’t understand how his rights are affected if they move her but not him? There’s nothing in the letter to suggest that he needs to be near her for work reasons, the only reason he was there is because there was an open desk. And he’s only been there for a week so I don’t see how it affects him in the slightest if she gets moved.

            IANAL so I don’t disagree that it’s illegal – I just don’t see how her being moved is in any way making him “separate”. They can just put another coworker in there surely then the whole “separate” aspect doesn’t apply.

            1. Turquoisecow*

              It’s not him personally, it’s all men. You can’t have a policy that says “(Gender) can’t do (action).”

              In this case the action in question is “sitting near this particular female employee.”

              It doesn’t matter whether there’s an advantage to that seat or not. You can’t discriminate based on gender. If the female employee and the male employee personally didn’t get along and hated each other, the policy would be okay. But this isn’t personal. This means that the official company policy is that “(Gender) can’t do (action).” That’s discrimination.

              1. Ender*

                But she’s not asking for an ongoing policy. She’s asking if she can switch desks. It only came up once in a year. Its unlikely to come up again for another year. By which time she might have progressed in her recovery, she might have left the company, she might have moved to a private office. No one knows the future. I don’t see how it is discrimination against him to move her once.

                1. IDontRememberWhatNameIUsedBefore*

                  Because the law says it is.

                  If she had asked to be moved away from this employee because he was a POC, and that made her uncomfortable because her past trauma had been caused by a POC, would it make it easier for you to understand why it would still be illegal for them to accommodate her *even once*?

  15. Mt*

    Without an official request from a doctor, could that lead the company into trouble if someone else asked for the same accommodation and were denied?

    1. Sloan Kittering*

      That is why most companies seem to be rigid about desk assignments. They don’t want to be swamped with requests to move away from annoyances or towards windows. (I have no sympathy since the company is benefiting from warehousing their poor employees in cruddy open offices – but that is the rationale for refusing to let people move).

    2. Ask a Manager* Post author

      You treat each request separately. If there’s an ADA-covered condition, you proceed with the interactive process. If there’s not and it’s just a preference, you’re not required to do that (but still need to make sure that you’re not giving preference to requests based on the requestor’s sex, race, etc.).

      1. Mt*

        What im asking if 100 workers asked for this same item, siting the same conditions,could you be ok just granting the first one and not the rest? Noone has a formal ada request.

        1. Snark*

          There’s no such thing as a “formal ADA request,” as far as the ADA requirements for initating the interactive process go.

        2. A person*

          Initiating an interactive ADA process should help them figure out pretty quickly who is seeking an actual ADA accommodation and who just has a preference.

          1. Mt*

            If you dont require 1 person to have a dr note, could you turn around and require everyone in the future to have one?

      2. JamieS*

        That’s what baffles me. I understand the concept of conflicting laws but how can something rooted in discrimination (based on race, religion, sex, etc.) even be considered a disability for ADA purposes in the first place?

        1. Observer*

          What exactly are you asking? PTSD, if that’s what is involved, is not rooted in racism or sexism, although it can lead to it (or to behavior that falls under that category.)

          1. JamieS*

            The claim is she can’t be around men so if we’re assuming disability then the disability is she can’t be around men. How can that be covered under ADA?

            1. Observer*

              Because that’s not what the disability is. The disability is PTSD, which results in this problem.

  16. Ciscononymous*

    I had a guy in one of my training classes who was a dead ringer for someone who sexually assaulted me several years ago. That was hard and I was hyper aware of him all the time. I had to keep reminding myself that this man was just here for job training and didn’t do anything. I can imagine OPs employee’s productivity is highly affected and hope that OP can find an answer that doesn’t involve gender discrimination.

  17. lnelson1218*

    I prefer, if in a cube situation/open floor plan, to have my back to the wall. More because I am in HR have often have more sensitive items open on my screens and the so-call privacy screens don’t work as well as people like to think that they do.
    Having said that. I have been angled in places so that my back is to the window and actually see the people as they approach me, but still manage to jump three feet out of my own skin.

  18. This is Not Legal Advice*

    I’m a lawyer, I work on employment discrimination cases, and I actually disagree with many of the takes on sex discrimination here — I don’t think a reasonable accommodation in this case necessarily implicates another person’s Title VII rights.

    First of all, the EEOC is pretty loose about what constitutes an RA request. She mentioned that this was because of “trauma,” which I think opens the door. It doesn’t matter that she framed it as a question rather than a demand/request. Lots of people (esp. women) are socialized to couch their language in questions, but you wouldn’t say that an employee who asked “Would it be possible to take some time off because I’m going through some medical stuff?” is flat-out not seeking an RA. You can’t just stick your head in the sand and say, “Well, she didn’t *demand* or say the magic words, so we just didn’t ask if she needed an RA.”

    Second, for the purposes of Title VII, I really doubt a court would look at “having to move to a different desk” as an adverse action. See e.g. Barber v. C1 Truck Driver Training, LLC, 656 F.3d 782, 797–98 (8th Cir. 2011). (“Moving Barber’s desk “is not [a] materially adverse employment action because it is the kind of annoyance or petty slight that we have held does not constitute actionable harm” for the purposes of establishing a prima facie case.”) (internal citations omitted). A desk or office move could be adverse in some circumstances, e.g. if you moved the male employee into a closet, if you transferred him to a different geographic office, if something about the other desk was really bad/unpleasant or otherwise affected the terms and conditions of his employment. But probably not if this is just a regular office and regular desk swap.

    Third, assuming that this is an RA issue, and that this is a standard office, you don’t actually necessarily have to move the male employee (or assign seating by gender) to accommodate the other employee. I kind of doubt the LW could get away with claiming “undue hardship” from having to move some desks, given that moving desks is pretty standard (if annoying) when someone is newly hired or leaves. Just continue to engage in the interactive process (you can ask for reasonable medical documentation from the employee to better understand why this is needed and how this will help her perform job duties!). Can the person’s desk be rotated so that their back is to the wall? Is someone else also looking to swap desks? If your office uses cube dividers, can they be moved to block a line of sight? Would she be okay being near male employees that she knows better?

    1. serenity*

      Are you challenging Donna Ballman’s advice, or what you’re seeing in the comments here?

      1. This is Not Legal Advice*

        A little bit of both. I disagree with the portion of Donna Ballman’s advice here:

        “…it sounds like the request was not an ADA request, but simply a preference. Had the request been made with a doctor’s note for an accommodation for a disability, or if she had said it was an accommodation for a disability, that might trigger disability accommodation concerns…based on the way it was phrased in the question it really sounded more like a preference than a disability.”

        In general, if an employee makes a request for a change in work condition and ties it to a disability or medical need, it’s hard for the employer to argue that they weren’t on notice that they might have to engage in the interactive process. The EEOC explains that “An applicant or employee may indicate that he needs an adjustment or change in the application process or at work for a reason related to a medical condition. The request…does not have to include the terms ‘reasonable accommodation,’ ‘Americans with Disabilities Act,’ or ‘disability.’ ” (https://www.eeoc.gov/employers/smallbusiness/facts/tips_disability_accommodations.cfm).

        Here, the LW states that the employee mentioned “based on some past trauma, she isn’t comfortable sitting so near a man all day.” We don’t have more information on that, but if an employee is saying that she has past trauma severe enough that even sitting near a man makes her uncomfortable, it’s pretty reasonable (and prudent) to at least inquire whether the employee might need an RA.

        I’m also seeing a lot of people in the comments claim that it’s an automatic Title VII violation if a reasonable accommodation for one employee requires a male employee to have to change desks because of sex, which I don’t think is true, for reasons I’ve already explained.

          1. This is Not Legal Advice*

            Generally no. Employers may require “reasonable” medical documentation to show:
            – That there is an impairment which constitutes a disability;
            – How the impairment interferes with work; and
            – How the requested accommodation will help the employee perform essential functions of their job.

            However, employees may not have to provide medical documentation if their impairment is “obvious.” So not quite self-diagnosed, but it’s good to know that you generally don’t have to waste yours and a doctor’s time to try to get notes that say “Please let So-and-so use the elevator because they use a wheelchair”

      1. Snark*

        But it’s also not cut and dried in the shape you seem to prefer, either, and given that “accomodate the request as far as you can without potentially running afoul of Title VII” is a prudent and parsimonious solution, what’s your issue?

        1. John Rohan*

          How would you possibly know “the shape that I prefer”? I don’t even have a preferred solution. I simply think these laws make things too complicated, and even legal experts will disagree.

          1. Observer*

            I don’t think legal experts actually disagree. What TiNLA said is actually not in disagreement with what Donna Ballman said. She said that it sounded like a preference rather than a need, but ALSO said that it makes sense to explore the possibility of ADA since something like PTSD could be at play here.

            The fact that there are some edge cases where it’s not clear what the issue is doesn’t make it a bad or overly complex law.

            1. This is Not Legal Advice*

              Yeah, to be clear, I only disagree with Donna Ballman with regard to (a) her characterization of the employee’s inquiry as a preference instead of an accommodation request, and (b) her evaluation that the employee’s inquiry necessarily requires a Title VII violation.

              I don’t think the laws are what’s complicated here – this is just a kind of weird fact pattern and I’m sure Donna Ballman and I are just reading different things into LW’s (slightly vague) post.

          2. Gazebo Slayer*

            …so your preferred solution is no discrimination or accommodation-related laws at all? Because that’s the impression I’m getting.

    2. Trout 'Waver*

      So if you moved all the men into one room and all the women into another separate room, and both rooms were equal in status, standing, and all material factors except for the fact that they were separate, it would not constitute an adverse action?

      1. John Rohan*

        Possibly in theory? But in reality, it would be hard to do that without running afoul of something else.

          1. Holly*

            The answer to 99.9% legal hypotheticals is “it depends,” or “possibly,” Trout ‘Waver. It depends on the actual facts. There’s nothing in John Rohan’s comment to extrapolate what you’re saying.

      2. This is Not Legal Advice*

        Assuming you’re not just being argumentative for the sake of it, “separate but equal” seating like that would obviously violate Title VII. For Title VII purposes, there are distinctions between policies (official and unofficial) and one-off acts (especially where the one-off act is done to provide a reasonable accommodation). Moving ALL the people based on sex would be a very different issue from moving one person over by a few feet. Especially because the one person being moved here could be the woman requesting the move, and not the male employee!

        This comes up all the time in anti-discrimination law. Things that would be forbidden as policies applied to everyone in a workplace might be okay as one-time accommodations. For example, “No service animals in the workplace” would obviously violate the ADA. But “No service animals in Pippin’s office because he’s deathly allergic to animal dander” would probably be okay, because the ADA’s general requirement (that you can’t blanket ban service animals) is outweighed by the specific need to accommodate Pippin’s disability.

        Likewise, think about the number of workplaces that have policies of same-gender hotel room assignments on business trips. A policy that “Women cannot go on business trips” or “Men cannot go on business trips” would almost certainly violate Title VII. But if Frodo says he can’t stay in the same room as Arwen because of his religion, getting Arwen to swap to a hotel room down the hall because she’s a woman isn’t a Title VII violation. Generally small adjustments like that don’t break the law. However, making Arwen drive to a hotel an hour away may become a Title VII violation, because that’s way more adverse.

        1. Mt*

          What would happen if 20 more people claimed this didabilty and requested the same accommodation? Would the company have any liability in either rejecting or accepting everyone’s request?

        2. Trout 'Waver*

          Despite my obvious snark, I am actually totally asking because I’m interested in where the line is. IANAL, but it seems to me that an adverse event is required for someone to sue under Title VII whether it is a policy or a one-off act. There’s also the general messiness of how many one-off acts make a policy.

          Also, keep in mind this isn’t exactly a one-off. It’s not like the problem is fixed by simply moving someone. You also have to have a policy of “Men can’t sit next to coworker X”.

          1. Ender*

            It seems like the issue only came up after a year. So it’s entirely possible that it could be solved by a one-off event, or even by a very small series of events.

            In another year she may have progressed further in her recovery and be able to handle sitting near men. Or she may have been promoted and qualify for her own office. Theres no way to tell if and when the issue will arise again. She hasn’t asked for a blanket policy, she’s only asked if she can move this one time.

          2. Turquoisecow*

            But that policy is basically illegal because it’s discriminatory. It doesn’t matter if there’s an advantage to the seat or whatever, you can’t have a policy that says that “(gender) can’t do (action)”, even if the action is just “have this seat near this employee.”

            1. This is Not Legal Advice*

              As previously explained, things like minor seating changes very rarely are adverse enough to rise to the level of a Title VII violation unless there are other things about the new seat that are adverse.

              Also, the policy is not “Men cannot sit near employee X.” The policy is, “If it isn’t an undue hardship for the employer, Employee X may move to a different desk if doing so is medically necessary.”

              To illustrate how that’s different: in the first scenario, *all men* have to adjust their seats to accommodate Employee X. In the latter scenario, Employee X is the one taking on the adjustment. Theoretically, you could give each man his first choice of desk, then just assign Employee X to whichever remaining desk makes her feel most comfortable. But obviously that would be silly and would disadvantage the women.

              Instead, the actual scenario is this: the men in the office will most likely stay where they are. Employee X, if she can show that she is entitled to such a reasonable accommodation, will have to move to an open desk, swap her desk with a volunteer, re-orient her current desk, re-orient a cube wall or her monitor or another object, or figure out something else with the LW to get this done. The men in the office are no worse off than they were previously, because they are still in the seats they were originally assigned.

              Even if the LW addressed this by swapping the desk of the new coworker, unless the new desk was somehow very different and worse than the current desk, a court would likely find that the desk swap wasn’t adverse enough to be legally actionable. As I mentioned elsewhere in the thread, employers do this kind of thing all the time because the law requires it. You might as well try to argue that allowing an employee to have a Kosher drawer in the kitchen is religious discrimination because “non-Jewish people can’t use the drawer”, or that having a private breastfeeding room is sex discrimination because “men can’t go in there.”

              1. Trout 'Waver*

                You missed my point(s), but I’m going leave this here because it’s going off topic.

      3. TootsNYC*

        that’s a bit of a straw man–exaggerate the other person’s argument in order to make their point seem obviously stupid. Nobody’s suggesting anything wholesale.

        She just asked for HER desk to be moved.

    3. TootsNYC*

      Second, for the purposes of Title VII, I really doubt a court would look at “having to move to a different desk” as an adverse action.

      you don’t actually necessarily have to move the male employee (or assign seating by gender) to accommodate the other employee.

      And in fact, the employee did not ask for the man’s desk to be moved.

      She asked for HER desk to be moved.

      If your reasoning is correct, then this is even less an “adverse outcome” for the person supposedly being discriminated against.

  19. anon anon anon for this*

    Back in the mid to late 1980s, I was dealing with the aftermath of severe and long term abuse as a child. As I got further into therapy, I found there was one male coworker who really triggered me. Good news was that we only interacted for about 2 hours at the end of the day. Bad news was that handling those two hours was hell.

    There was no way to minimize the interaction, with the exception of my leaving the job. In the end, it was a contributing factor in my claiming and being granted disability. It took 5 years of really intense work, but I was able to fully and successfully return to the workforce.

    I had to analyze what was happening and the fact that he was doing nothing to overtly trigger me. Using the issue as a means to dig deeper into what I needed to look at and resolve took time but was well worth it in the end.

    If this woman is really working on her issues, I would think she will have no problem having a psychologist/social worker/psychiatrist go to bat for her. But if not, she is just expressing a preference and I don’t think accommodation is called for.

    1. EvanMax*

      Thank you for being brave enough to share this. It is absolutely possible for both this employee’s issues to be completely valid, and also for the male employee in this situation to be completely innocent of fault here.

      I know a lot of people read the initial letter as there being something significant about the man being behind her, but when SisterSpooky showed up and stated that she (presuming based off of “sister”, apologies if I am misgendering) was the OP, she didn’t confirm these theories, and additionally, the letter states the employee’s issue was the proximity of a man to her desk, not the fact that he was behind her.

      All of which leads me to wonder how she manages to walk through the halls, where potentially men could be walking as well, or around a corner. Maybe it has to do with how long the man is next to her, or maybe she is already going through irrational machinations to ensure she doesn’t run into men in the halls (like avoiding certain hallways and/or certain times, peeking down hallways first and/or sending a scout, etc. Depending on how big this issue is for her, she may be doing a ton of things to avoid men that management isn’t even aware of, in which case this really would rise to the level of an ADA case (even if she isn’t defining it as a disability), but that still doesn’t change the laws around gender discrimination.

      Really, I think the question is “what do you need in order to make you comfortable sitting next to a man?” If it’s her back against a wall (and that is possible to do) then great, but if there’s no possible way to do this, then that’s not tenable for the firm. Hopefully the firm could assist with resources to help her overcome her trauma, at least enough to continue on in her role where she may wind up sitting next to a man. It’s all the other parts of working in a mixed-gender office that I’m curious how she deals with, though.

      1. anon anon anon for this*

        Excellent questions and excellent observations of what she might be doing. And if she is doing most or all of the things you outlined, all the time, in an office of 40% men, I would wonder just how productive she really is. Perhaps I’m jaded, but I saw a number of people in therapy who were not really addressing their issues but who wanted the world to build a cocoon around them.

        Please don’t get me wrong, I’m extremely sympathetic to her and her situation. It probably took a lot for her to even say what she said to her supervisor. And to think about what would happen if I could not work was horrible for me and probably to her, depending on where she is at in the healing process. But it really is not up to the company to play good parent to her. A hard lesson to learn when you are going through shit, but there it is.

  20. greenshell*

    just came to the comments to say I love when you bring in experts to comment on situations like these, which to inexperienced readers like me seem very sticky!

  21. Woman of a Certain Age*

    Many years ago I worked in a state agency when they hired their first man to work in the clerical department and it caused a bit of departmental upset, just the idea of it. The young man they hired was great, very competent, hardworking and professional. After he had been there for a while and people got used to him, it became hard to imagine that it was ever an issue.

    This lead to more men being hired, but I don’t think they ever became more than 20% of the department. Most of the men worked out fine, but there were a couple of clinkers. (One who asked single female coworkers for dates and another who had grooming issues, where management had to intervene.)

    Anyway, the moving the problem employee’s desk might be a short-term problem, but I hope that after she gets to meet and work alongside the male employee, she’ll get used to the idea and the problem will fade away, like it did at the state agency where I worked. (I also hope the male employee is professional and not a jerk.)

    1. TootsNYC*

      (she’s not necessarily a “problem employee”–she is “the employee in question,” of course)

      1. Woman of a Certain Age*

        I stand corrected. The term “The employee in question” is more sensitive.

    2. Bea*


      So many abuse victims have been in relationships with the men who brutalize them. So they have learned they can’t trust a man, no matter how nice he is in reality. The abusers were nice once. It’s how they get their hooks into a woman to then break her down and manipulate her.

      This isn’t about her seeing he’s a chill dude to work with and therefore she’ll never have a crippling fear of him attacking her.

      By the grace of God, I’ve never been in an abusive situation but I’m still able to wrap my mind around the situation. You’re way off base calling her a “problem” employee for letting someone know she’s fearful.

      1. Woman of a Certain Age*

        While I understand the point you’re trying to make, I think you could have expressed it better and (by the grace of God) with a bit less hostility.

  22. A person*

    If they value keeping the employee working there, it would be in the department’s best interest to initiate the process to determine what accommodations can be reasonably made for her. There must be some solution short of assigning seats in the office based on gender, like suggestions in other comments to move her desk backing up to a wall, or putting up dividers.

  23. AH*

    Maybe she’s be more comfortable if the man wasn’t BEHIND her, as the letter writer says he is. If they swapped desks he couldn’t see her but she could see him. That might make her more comfortable.

  24. Raphael*

    I gotta admit, I see this from a different angle. In Israel, some religious men won’t sit beside women. So they buy tickets on airplanes to/from Israel and refuse to take their seats if a woman is sitting next to them. The Israeli Supreme Court has ordered an end to this practice. I see this woman’s request in the same light.

    I don’t know about the USA, but I would want her to prove that her requirement was based on need and not on bias.

    1. EvanMax*

      US Law wouldn’t allow that practice either.

      The difference between Haredim on airplanes and this woman, though, is that the Haredi men, very unfortunately, think that they have a right to insist that the women be moved away from them. This woman, in this letter, is asking that she herself be moved. If she were asking that the an be moved, I think we would all recognize that she was very much in the wrong. The fact that she is offering to be moved herself definitely makes her situation more sympathetic (but as pointed out by Alison, still legally wrong. Even based on “need”, it doesn’t matter in the US, you can’t discriminate based on gender.

      The US is stricter on this because of the influence of religious law that inherently treats genders differently having a stronger influence on Israeli law (especially these days.)

        1. EvanMax*

          That may be, but the Haredi issue is one that has been a consistent one, not just a one-time anecdote.

    2. Ender*

      I’m totally confused. They refuse to take their seat and just choose to miss the flight instead? How can the government ban that? Surely it’s your right to change your mind to fly. If you want to get off the plane before it’s taken off you can surely?

      1. Q without U*

        No, they refused to take their seat and demanded that women be moved so they could sit somewhere without risk of contact with women. That is what the court banned – forcing women to move to accommodate religious ideology.

        1. Ender*

          Oh right, so they can still refuse to sit beside a woman but they are the ones who have to give up the flight to do so, that’s fair.

          I can’t believe airlines were moving women to accommodate men in the first place that’s insane. If it was the man asking then why would they not move him instead of the other way round!

          1. Observer*

            I can’t believe airlines were moving women to accommodate men in the first place that’s insane. If it was the man asking then why would they not move him instead of the other way round!

            That’s actually a good question, and one that a lot of Orthodox people (yes, even chareidi) folks have. You do NOT demand that someone else be moved. You ASK to be moved and try to find someone to accommodate you.

    3. Observer*

      That’s a totally different issue. It’s not the existence of women in the same room. The problem is because in places like airplanes, you are almost on top of each other. And, it’s not just men who don’t want to sit next to women, it’s women who don’t want to sit next to med in those very narrow circumstances (The pun wasn’t intentional, but it was too good to pass up.)

  25. Wine by the Bottle*

    I had two similar situations in my office:
    1. When a new hire stated she could not sit near a man because of “religious requirements.” We did not move her seat because we did not want to discriminate against gender.

    2. A new hire stated she had “bad flashbacks” near black men because she had been raped by a black man. We also did not move her seat, citing non-discrimination laws. She didn’t last long.

  26. Peter B*

    So, I do some ADA compliance-related work at work and although it is touched on in the answer, I think it important to point out that undue burden is calculated to the organization as a whole e.g. the entire company and not just the department or work team in question. That is something that is a regular surprise to folks when having these sorts of discussions on what undue burden really means. The larger and more heavily resourced your company is, the more difficult an undue burden or fundamental alteration argument becomes.

  27. SisterSpooky*

    OP here- sorry I haven’t been able to keep up-busy Monday! I really appreciate the perspectives shared, particularly the idea that it may be that he’s behind her, not just near her. We should definitely explore that with her. In a large department like ours we get a lot of requests to move desks for various reasons ranging from totally legitimate (the artificial lighting in this area gives me migraines) to the completely unnecessary (I want to sit by a window cause I like windows). To make things as fair as possible we typically don’t allow desk moves unless there is a business need or it’s for a medical accommodation. The tricky thing here is we have another employee who has been lobbying for an unnecessary move so if we told her no and then move someone else per their request (not business need) we may fan that fire. Obviously it’s not her business why someone else was moved but you know that’s easier to say than execute. I’ve seen her interact socially with men on the team, even the neighbor in question, so I am thinking there may definitely be merit to the specific issue with him being behind her. With most desks surrounded on three sides it would be much easier to accommodate that need by putting her on the end of a row where there is no desk behind her at all.

    1. Detective Amy Santiago*

      Please let us know how your conversation with her goes! I appreciate how kindly you are approaching this.

  28. HereKittyKitty*

    I’m seeing a lot of misconceptions about trauma and PTSD here. Speaking as someone who does have trauma and PTSD, triggers tend to be fairly specific. Being uncomfortable with a man sitting behind you does not translate to being traumatized by walking through halls, sitting in meetings, or going grocery shopping if men are around. Working in and writing specifically in survivor spaces, I’ve never known any PTSD that translated like that.

    For example, the smell of Axe body spray /can/ trigger me, but normally doesn’t. It takes a particular set of circumstances for that to be triggering. It would be unreasonable for others to assume/suggest that because Axe body spray /can/ trigger me in a specific circumstance then I would discriminate against men who wear cologne, avoid perfume counters at malls, can’t go and do things where someone might smell a certain way. That’s just not how it works. It’s a particularly a far leap to suggest someone uncomfortable with her back to a man might also being actively hurting/discriminating against men based on the fear.

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