Sunday, May 9, 2010

After Hours Dilemma

The Problem:

What should a PI do if a new technician asks to be excused from working after hours? In this case, the technician has expressed a reluctance to work in an empty building. If the PI had made the expectation for after-hours work clear from the beginning, then the obligation to make allowances in this technician’s case is lessened. We’ll assume in this instance, however, that there was no explicit discussion during hiring. It may be that the problem did not occur to the technician until after she spent a few evenings alone in the lab. It’s also possible that she is simply looking for a way to avoid work.

Either way, the request by this new technician requires a careful response.  She cannot excuse the technician without giving the rest of the staff the same option.  Even if most of the staff would continue to come in anyway, the fact that one person does not will ultimately lead to general disgruntlement (someone will have to take over this technician’s after-hours duties).  Also, if the research depends on after-hours work, the PI cannot afford to allow it.  So it would be a mistake to give this new technician or anyone else permission to opt out of their duties. If the research can be accomplished without after-hours work, then another option might be investigated. But we’ll assume that’s not the case here.

The Solution:

The PI should begin by meeting with the technician and explain that work after hours is necessary for the success of the lab’s research program. She should acknowledge the technician's concerns about safety, but explain that she would like to come up with an alternative solution.

The PI should then ask the technician specifically what she is concerned about. The technician has stated only that she does not want to work alone in an empty building. Is she concerned about having an accident and no one to help, being the victim of an attack in an empty building or parking lot, or just what? Once the PI has a better idea of the specific concern, then she can ask the technician what would alleviate that concern (other than not working after hours). She should ask if the presence of other people would alleviate her anxiety or if better building security would help. The PI should ask what the technician might do to contribute to the solution (e.g., make use of a campus transport system or have a spouse or friend drop her off and pick her up on the days she must work late).

Once some other options are identified, then the PI and technician can work out the best solution together. It may be that some simple security changes would be sufficient to allay the technician’s fears.

If all else fails, the PI may have to implement a “buddy system” requirement for work after hours—for all employees and students. I realize this option sounds inconvenient and possibly unfeasible in some situations. But it may be the only solution in this particular case. Furthermore, this might be something to consider for the lab anyway--aside from the situation with this technician. Accidents can occur anywhere and any time, and less experienced staff or students may do some really dumb/dangerous things in the lab, particularly when supervisors are not around.

So, the answer to the question I posed initially is not completely straightforward. The PI is not legally obligated to excuse the technician from working after hours, since this was never promised during the interview. On the other hand, the PI failed to ensure that the technician understood the after-hours requirement for the position. So the PI bears some responsibility for the situation and therefore shouldn’t just turn down the request. The PI is also obligated to ensure the safety of her staff.  The correct response is to address the technician's concerns about safety and to find a solution that does not jeopardize the PI's research program.

In the future, the PI should ensure that new hires understand (and acknowledge) the duties and expectations of the job.

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