Q: I worked at a charity-run store for one year. Our manager was an alcoholic, but we didn't know it until he fell off the wagon.
He had moved closer to the store to avoid a long drive into work. Of all places to choose to live, he moved into an apartment above a bar. The three of us — my co-worker, our manager and I — were supposed to meet with two senior managers who were coming to inspect the stores in a certain area. Our immediate manager called in sick on the day of the meeting. When the senior managers arrived, they left after only inspecting the store for a few minutes because they immediately didn't like the way it looked.
The next day, one of those managers returned and wrote up my co-worker and I because the store didn't meet standards. We were shocked. Our manager was not fired but instead transferred to another location. We weren't told in advance about the manager being an alcoholic, but I think we should have been. Maybe we could have acted differently. We were told about his history of drinking after he was removed, but not knowing put my co-worker and I in an awkward position.
A: Although management knew your manager's history of drinking, they would not have been allowed to warn you. Medical history and records of known conditions and diseases come under the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act of 1996. HIPAA protects the privacy of health information, security of electronic records, administrative simplification and insurance portability and provides precise instructions for handling a patient's personal health information. It's surprising that you and your co-worker were told about your manager's history after his departure. This also comes under the protection of HIPAA.
The lesson in this experience is that just because someone is your manager doesn't mean they will always do what's right for the company or for the charity, as the case may be. An employee should follow a boss' orders but should also use their inner guidance system to decide if those orders — or lack of orders — make sense.
If you looked around the store and saw disorganization abound, you could have taken an assertive approach and said something, in addition to offering suggestions on how you could fix it. Complaints without positive suggestions are pointless; when you have ideas on how to improve a situation, a good manager will listen.
It's likely your manager's drinking affected his ability to function and could have included binge drinking, which would have meant he couldn't think clearly or make constructive decisions. If you and your co-worker offered to clean up and organize the store, he may have appreciated it because, ultimately, the store's improved appearance would have made him look better as a manager. When he appeared under the influence of alcohol, he may not have been able to realistically see the lack of order in the store. His clouded thinking doesn't necessarily mean he would have rejected your suggestions to spruce up the store.
When determining whether you can be open and honest with a manager, ask yourself if they're operating in their own world of nonaction or in one of belligerence and closed-mindedness. It sounds like he simply avoided action and hid from reality when he was affected by the alcohol. If you had asked, he may very well have told you to do whatever you could to improve the store, especially considering you were a full-time employee. Many stores have downtime for its sales assistants where straightening up and organizing products takes precedence. Waiting for a manager to tell you what to do is taking a passive approach, which will get any employee nowhere.
If you worked for an authoritative or verbally abusive manager, assuming you wanted to keep the job, following orders might be the only way to survive. Managers are individuals, just like you. Don't think that someone who's a manager is necessarily there because of a great performance record. Many variables factor into a person's employment level, from rank and file up to CEO. You must listen to your own common sense when you feel something's wrong — and act accordingly.
Email your workplace issues and experiences to [email protected] For more information about career and life coach Lindsey Novak, visit www.lindseyparkernovak.com, and for past columns, see www.creators.com/read/at-work-lindsey-novak.
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