Illustration by Dave van Patten

Should the Bird-Phobic Guy Who Pushed His Coworker Into the Street Be Fired?

We get to the bottom of the HR mess from Ask a Manager

Pop quiz: You’re walking down the sidewalk after lunch one day with your coworker, Jack, when a bird suddenly lands in your path. Jack panics, pushing you out of the way to escape, inadvertently shoving you into the street, where you’re hit by a car, breaking two bones in your forearm. Bewilderingly, Jack stands there doing nothing to assist you. When you realize he will not be fired for this act because it turns out he has a documented bird phobia, you quit. Then your boss asks you back because you are a key member of the team, but you refuse to return unless Jack is fired. They won’t budge.

What now? That is an actual bizarro question over at Ask a Manager, a blog about office problems drawn from reader questions, and we’re taking it to our resident HR expert Terry Petracca to help parse.

The question, sent in by the manager of the office about coworkers Jack and Liz, is fascinating because it’s a perfect intersection of understandable anger meets protected status, and is also totally bonkers.

First off, the breaks in Liz’s bones are bad enough to require surgery and a four-day hospital stay. She has no idea about Jack’s phobia until she returns to work. Some 1 in 10 people has a phobia of some kind, and apparently bird and animal phobias are common among that set. Behavioral therapy is said to be very successful — 9 out of 10 people are helped by it — but Jack materializes a letter from his therapist saying he’s been in treatment for ornithophobia for two years.

Trouble is, Jack is otherwise a model employee, and now has a documented mental illness. Liz quits when she is told Jack won’t be fired. Jack apologizes to Liz but she rejects his apology. Jack even says it’s okay to tell Liz about his phobia, hoping it will explain his behavior, but that doesn’t change her mind. She refuses to come back to work, and now the manager wants to know how to get out of this bind. She needs Liz at work, and can’t fire Jack.

Ask a Manager’s response is pragmatic: Liz is the one who quit; employees can’t dictate that other employees be fired; and you can’t lure an employee back on such grounds. We ran it by Terry Petracca, who agreed with that take, with a few caveats.

“I think the answer is spot on,” Petracca told MEL. “Jack didn’t do anything to warrant termination and Liz can quit her job for any time, for any reason. She exercised that right.”

But Petracca notes that there’s an oddity in the fact that Jack’s phobia and mental health issues were disclosed to Liz. “This is a slippery slope with HIPAA protections for Jack regarding personal health information,” Petracca says. “Even though he gave his permission to disclose, he may have done it under duress to save his job. I’d never ask or expect any employee to disclose — at best, the HR person should have said there are medical issues that we cannot discuss due to HIPAA privacy rules.”

Petracca goes on to note that the bigger issue here is how unprepared organizations are when someone leaves. “All companies should have knowledge transfer plans in place for key projects/people,” she said.

Furthermore, the company should have never asked Liz back. “Once Liz was contacted to return, a bad, bad move — it put her in the catbird seat—she thought she had the leverage to get Jack fired,” Petracca writes. “Miscue on her company’s part.”

Even though initially Liz appears to be the victim, Petracca says that both employees are victims in the end. “What puts Jack in a no-win situation is that Liz had the visible pain and scars, and hers was the very public split,” she notes. “Do we think Jack wants to Slack the office about his unusual phobia? I doubt it. Yet I bet Liz blasted her friends and social media about what kind of a shit he was.”

The bottom line, she says, is that everyone wants this bizarre problem to go away — the company, which did nothing wrong; HR, who handled it okay except for possibly violating HIPAA. Jack wants it to go away too, which is sad, but Liz, Petracca says, “wants the moral high ground when it doesn’t exist.”

Liz probably should have held her ground, stayed at her job, and maybe requested to work away from Jack in the future on separate projects. But who among us could’ve seen this conundrum coming? Instead, now she’ll be on to the next job, which is probably for the best, particularly if she never has to see another bird again.