Thursday, May 6, 2010

Decisions, Decisions

This post is a follow-up to the previous post that described a hypothetical situation in which a PI has hired a new technician who later expresses a fear of working after hours in a nearly deserted building. Others of the staff regularly work outside of normal hours because of the nature of the research. I asked if the PI is obligated to excuse her from those duties.

The majority of readers (so far) think that the PI is not obligated to comply with this request (see poll at bottom of page).

In this post, I will begin to examine the issue, and in succeeding posts suggest some solutions to this specific situation.

There are several aspects to this issue. Let’s take a look at each one.

1. Job description. First, the PI must consider what this employee’s job description says and what was said when she was hired. If the employee expressed a concern about working after hours during the interview, and she was told that she would not be required to do so, then there is an implied contract.  The PI may be obligated to uphold this contract. If the PI (or HR) specified, on the other hand, that she would occasionally or routinely have to work after hours (or whatever the case might be), then she accepted the job under that agreement. 

2. Other staff.  The PI must apply any policy equally to all staff in her lab.  She cannot let one staff member be excused from some aspect of work and not extend the same possibility to everyone (exceptions might be for someone who is handicapped, for example, but this would have likely been discussed upon hiring). Failure to do this could lead to a discrimination lawsuit and land the PI in very hot water.

3. Safety. Even if the PI thinks that safety is not a real issue in the building or whatever the work situation entails, failure to take proper precautions could expose the PI (and institution) to legal problems if an accident occurs.  The PI is responsible for the safety of those staff she supervises (and anyone who spends time in her lab). Anyone working alone in an office, a lab, or in the field can have an accident (chemical spill, falls), suffer some health problem (allergic reaction, heart attack), or be the victim of a criminal act. Not only does the PI not want any harm to come to her staff on ethical/moral grounds, she also does not want to put herself into a position of liability. If an accident occurs, the first thing that the institution will investigate is whether the PI followed safety regulations (OSHA and institutional regulations) and did everything to ensure staff safety. If the PI hasn’t taken reasonable precautions, guess who is going to be blamed?

In the next post, I'll consider some options a PI may consider in dealing with this situation.

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