The Unintended Consequences of an E-mail

On and off, there has been a problem where we end up with a lot of cigarette smoke leaking into the SCCS media lounge because on of the Tarble employees has had an indoor cigarette break. This most recently happened again this past week, so we (the sysadmins) decided to do something about it.

I wrote an e-mail to Linda, the head of Dining Services, with a polite request to pass the message on to the employees of Essie Mae’s. When I was writing it, I did consider that it might be better if I talked about it with one of the workers I know, but I didn’t want to have a confrontational conversation. E-mail has the advantage of being impersonal, and Linda seemed like the logical contact for this.

She got back to me fairly quickly, saying “Nick: I will pass this along to Marie, who is the snack bar manager. I am truly sorry this is happening and will be sure our employees are addressed. You should also make this known to your fellow students since I see many of them smoking in Tarble as well. As a non-smoker I feel for you and this seems to be an issue throughout campus. Please let me know if this continues to be a problem.” Sounds like a problem solved to me.

Admittedly, I don’t usually confront students about this either. For example, I happened to pass through the back hall of Tarble last night on my way to the Media Lounge (which Public Safety left unlocked again, grawr), and a number of people were there smoking (or smoking up, for that matter). I didn’t say anything, although I think in that case there was an outnumbering issue.

Anyway, today at lunch, Marie was behind the counter and actually had a copy of my e-mail that Linda had forwarded to her. She asked me why I hadn’t come to talk to her, and I really just stumbled over my words. I apologized, of course, but I didn’t expect this to be a problem. Even worse than that, she mentioned that one of the employees confessed to having smoked repeatedly in the storeroom, and that she was being pressured to (as I understood her) fire him!!

So my first reaction was guilt (well… duh), since my complaint started this mess. I’ve tried a couple of times to write a second e-mail to Linda, but I just can’t come up with anything. I think I’ll try and find her in her Sharples office, although I don’t think she’ll be available until Monday.

Hopefully this isn’t actually as bad as it sounds… I just wanted the smoking to stop. :o\ Feel free to provide advice. On a related note, did I go about this in totally the wrong way? ::sigh::

Free As A Bird” from Anthology 1 by The Beatles


15 responses to “The Unintended Consequences of an E-mail”

  1. It’s an unfortunate situation, but not your fault. It _is_ against not only campus policy but also Pennsylvania law to smoke in Tarble (being a public building). While it is unfortunate that there are consequences for people smoking, it’s not exactly like this is a sudden blow–I love seeing cigarette butts crushed out on the floor right next to a no smoking sign. Tarble has been posted as non-smoking for years.

    Personally, if I had known Marie–and I don’t know her–I might have sent her my email, but I might not. Linda McDougall’s the liaison for Dining Services for a reason, and that reason includes having all major student-DS interaction filter through a single person.

    If the employee confessed to smoking in the storeroom repeatedly, and promised not to do it again, I would view termination of employment as an unnecessarily severe punishment–smoking in this case is a (relatively minor) rule violation. However, it sounded from Linda’s original reply that this has been an issue before, perhaps with the same employee. If this is so, the rule violation is strengthened by repeated offense. If a warning was previously given, the violation is then joined by the far more serious problem of insubordination. Depending on the circumstances, termination becomes a very reasonable option–in some ways, the only possible one. If if it comes to that, managers can’t afford employees who flout their authority and disobey direct instructions.

    Which is a long and wordy way of saying “I don’t think you were wrong.”

  2. Yeah, I don’t think you were wrong either.

    Call me a jerk, but rules are rules, and people don’t have the right to ignore them just because the reasons for the rules and the people the rules are made to protect are invisible and unimportant to them. Smokers don’t have the right to disrespect nonsmokers just ’cause it’s easier for them to smoke than for nonsmokers to confront them about it.

    The widespread apparent consensus that they *do*, and that nonsmokers who bug them for it are “annoying” and “moralistic” and “inconsiderate” — that when they indulge in a nasty habit that ruins their health they have to include us in their nasty habit — really ticks me off.

    As someone who tries to be nice I don’t think that getting people in trouble is *fun*, but when people break rules they deserve to get in trouble.

  3. Personally, I believe in direct communication. I’d rather tell/ask someone to stop smoking in person than do it through e-mail, and both are far better than doing it through someone else.

    That’s juat my personal preference, though–I’d rather avoid problems like your current one at the expense of facing problems like the ones you didn’t avoid due to Linda’s actions. This is an example of why I hold this position.

    That said, people shouldn’t smoke indoors, and people should follow company policy/issue formal complaints rather than break the rules. The relevant person shouldn’t be fired (it’s not -that- bad of an offense, unless he/she knew that relevant people had asthma or the like), but should be induced to not do it anymore.

  4. I disagree on one point. The severity of the offense you see–smoking–is arguably not a firing offense, but it is breaking a law. Picture yourself as an employer. Under employment law, you’re potentially liable for the actions of your employees. Do you want an employee who’s violating the law on your watch?

    The other thing, as I said above, is that it seems likely from context that the employee in question has committed this infraction before, and has simply chosen to disobey. That elevates the gravity of things. You say people should follow company policy rather than break the rules. What do you propose for when they don’t?

  5. I’ll admit that my beliefs aren’t quite consistent here. (They do follow a more meta- rule though). While it is breaking the law, and thus deserves censure, smoking indoors is not a “starter offense.” People who smoke indoors are no more likely to commit fraud, theft, assault, or murder that those who smoke outside or not at all. Therefore, reducing the question to “Do you want an employee who’s violating the law on your watch?” is an oversimplification. Should Swarthmore bar all students who illegally downloaded files from work-study jobs, on the same logic? Obviously smoking is a different category of offense, but not that different.

    So I’m advocating being merciful to someone who’s not a bad person, who stopped smoking inside when called on it, and who seems like a generally decent person otherwise. If it happens again, no mercy there.

  6. I think that, in one place, you’re missing the point, and in another place, we’re making the same point and not connecting with it.

    Your example of barring students who’ve done illegal downloads from work-study isn’t quite the same situation. You can make it into one, but it requires a bit more in the way of specification: “Should Swarthmore bar all students who illegally downloaded files while on the job, while sitting at computers plastered with signs saying ‘you may not download these sorts of files’ from work-study jobs . . .?” The key points here are that the infraction is committed at the workplace while on duty and that there are posted warnings all over the place.

    I agree that smoking indoors is not, under the current system, a “starter offense”, though that term has no legal standing. I often think it _should_ be a starter offense, but I’ll allow that it isn’t at present. Mercy is a virtue, and I’ll speak strongly in its defense. However, it seemed clear to me from what Nick said that this is not a first offense in the case of the person who might get fired. Thus we’re agreed on the protocols–mercy for a first offense, swift action for a second–but in disagreement on the current state of affairs. You see a first offense; I see a second.

    In truth, neither of us has enough information to make this call. But I suspect that Dining Services does, and that this is the motivation behind the pressure being placed on Marie. The Dining Services people are smart–they know that you can’t run a team without trust, and you certainly can’t run one without workers, and so I don’t think they will intentionally take actions that cause dissent among their staff without reason.

  7. Wow. I don’t think it’s your fault, because there’s no way you would have known this would happen, but it sounds like Linda McDougall definitely did overreact, and maybe it WOULD have been better to contact somebody else. Especially after hearing about her comment at the Living Wage thing, together with this, it sounds like she really is a pretty callous boss to her workers. I know that tamias said that he doesn’t think Dining Services people would do anything to “cause dissent among their staff without reason,” but I’m not so sure about that. If this worker had been warned at least a few times before, then MAYBE they should get a harsh punishment, but especially if you said it sounded like Marie was being pressured to fire this guy when she didn’t want to, it doesn’t sound like that. I would think the manager of Tarble would know better if the worker really deserves to be fired than Linda would….

    So I definitely think you should talk to Linda and tell her that even though you did want this problem to stop, you wouldn’t be comfortable with a worker being fired because of this. Of course I don’t know, I guess I see why you’re uncomfortable with doing it, because I don’t know exactly how I’d word an E-mail like that, and I’d be afraid she’d say “it’s not your business to tell me how to run my department” or something like that. But it’s still worth a shot, because she obviously can’t really do anything to you for saying it… But maybe talk to Marie in Tarble first and tell her that you feel bad about this happening, and maybe see if she’d want you E-mail or talk to Linda to tell her that.

    So yeah, I guess it is a pretty awkward and generally bad situation…but I don’t think you could have expected that, and I don’t think it’s your fault for thinking that it was the right thing to E-mail Linda McDougall, because that’s what I probably would have done in that situation…

  8. “I often think it _should_ be a starter offense”

    Before I get into a ssubstantive response, I’ll note that this confuses me. Do you think that it’d be better if people who smoke where they shouldn’t then went on to deal illegal drugs and steal to support their habits? (By “starter offense” I was drawing an analogy to Marijuana’s “starter drug” status, wherein people who use it allegedly go on to use harder drugs).

    That said,
    I do believe I missed the part where it wasn’t a first offense. Yeah, if you’re doing something wrong and you get caught, don’t do it again.

    As to filesharing: Perhaps I’ve just glossed over them, being neither a smoker nor an asthmatic, but I haven’t noticed large amounts of no-smoking signs in that corner of Tarble. I also question the utility of such signs, especially if they are there and were jut being ignored. Downloading illegally, knowing that it’s illegal and that people are being sued for nontrivial amounts because of it, is disregarding signs that are, if not as blatant, fairly clear.

  9. but also Pennsylvania law to smoke in Tarble (being a public building).

    I beg your pardon?

    That’s not a state law anywhere besides California, and it’s not a city law in Swarthmore for sure. It’s also not a law in Philadelphia (it is in NYC).

  10. Fair enough. I didn’t check this: it was an assertion made by a fellow student a few years ago. I’m willing to concede that it is probably inaccurate–Pennsylvania’s still not entirely on the ball with regard to smoking regulations–and retract that part of my statement.

    However, I do stand by my statement that it contradicts clearly-stated campus policy to smoke in Tarble. While people disagree about the rightness of the rule, I don’t think there can be much debate that the rule exists.

    Good on you for pointing out a flaw in the argument.

  11. As a smoker (hi there!) and a Pennsylvannia voter, let me assure that smoking in public places is still entirely legal in PA.

    Fwiw, I hadn’t actually read the rest of the thread, where you based a lot of moral convictions about it being okay to go to upper management because these people were breaking the law, on this.

    I don’t think that’d change my disagreeing with you about going to management having been the appropriate action. While meant well, Linda McDougal is not a filter through which his polite request would reach the intended audience as anything but a vitriolic dressing down.

    Also, you’re making a lot of assumptions about the poor Essie Mae’s employees. Having spent plenty of time on that campus, I’m pretty sure that the SCCS media lounge is getting smoke from the students in Paces, not from the workers in Essie Mae’s. So your suggestions that the employer might be liable for “infractions” of their employees are based on entirely circumstantial evidence (if there even were a non-smoking law in PA). That’s a paper-thin argument in court, but with a manager like Linda McDougal (the worst kind of picky non-smoker, an EX-smoker) it could get somebody fired when they weren’t even the person pissing off.

    That’d suck for everyone. The SCCS would still smell smoke, the employee’d be out of a job, and Linda’d have to hire a new employee (trust me, hiring processes aren’t much fun for the one doing the hiring either).

  12. I’m not going to take issue with your right to smoke in public places in PA, since you’ve evidently (and quite properly) done more research on it than I have. I will point out that my original statement had two lemmas: that it was against state law to smoke in Tarble, and that it was against posted campus policy to smoke in Tarble. I’ve accepted that my first lemma is unsteady; I believe the second one still holds.

  13. I’m trying to find the moral convictions you’re citing in my posts. So far as I can tell, the only moral assertions are those concerning the degree of punishment appropriate for a Dining Services employee smoking inside a non-smoking building while on duty. I’ll quote the relevant passage:

    If the employee confessed to smoking in the storeroom repeatedly, and promised not to do it again, I would view termination of employment as an unnecessarily severe punishment–smoking in this case is a (relatively minor) rule violation. However, it sounded from Linda’s original reply that this has been an issue before, perhaps with the same employee. If this is so, the rule violation is strengthened by repeated offense. If a warning was previously given, the violation is then joined by the far more serious problem of insubordination. Depending on the circumstances, termination becomes a very reasonable option–in some ways, the only possible one. If if it comes to that, managers can’t afford employees who flout their authority and disobey direct instructions.

    Assertions here: (a) termination is unwarranted by a first offense; (b) Linda seems to suggest that this has been a problem before; (c) repeated offenses count more than single ones; (d) if an employee has previously committed an infraction and been warned to stop, the same offense committed again has more gravity, and adds a different category of offense to the mix; (e) if an employee is insubordinate, termination is a reasonable option depending on the circumstances; (f) sometimes the only option is to fire an insubordinate employee; (g) there exist conditions under which managers cannot afford to employ workers who disobey direct instructions.

    Of these, the moral convictions are (to my mind): (a), (d), (e), and (f). I might give you (c) as a moral conviction too. If you read this one carefully, you’ll see that I never say that the appropriate action is to fire the employee in question; I merely say it’s a potentially reasonable action for Dining Services to take, if the facts match. I say “the employee” because we’ve heard it said that an employee confessed to smoking in the storeroom. I don’t have the rest of the facts concerning this specific instance with this specific employee; if you do, I’d be interested to hear them.

    If you take issue with one of my “moral convictions”, please explain why.

    I disagree with your statement that going to Linda McDougall was an incorrect action. While you’re right that Linda is upper management in Dining Services, I’m right that she’s the liaison for this sort of thing. The Dining Services website gives Marie as the staff contact point for questions and comments about the snack bar, but also gives Linda as the staff contact point for issues with Dining Services personnel. While you may feel–not without reason–that it would have been better to go to the Snack Bar people first, it is not at all out of line to follow the posted guidelines for contact.

    You make a lot of statements based on your opinion of Linda McDougall as a person and a manager. That opinion doesn’t jive with those of people I know, but since I don’t know Linda personally, I don’t feel able to comment. I will point out that, since Linda is relatively unknown to the student body, it’s not reasonable to expect students to temper their interactions with her based on her habits of transmitting requests and complaints: students have no reason to know how she behaves.

    I agree that most of the smoke in the media lounge is probably coming from Paces. I don’t have information about whether Essie Mae’s employees smoke in the storeroom. However, one of them confessed to doing it. How is that circumstantial evidence? My point about liability was based on my apparently erroneous belief that PA had a no-smoking law. However, to trot out the flogged dead horse again, Tarble is posted as a non-smoking area. Civil liability is probably not an issue here, but accountability to upper management may be. It was a side point, anyway.

  14. If you’ll read my comments again, I think you’ll find that I’m not advocating a witchhunt for Tarble smokers; I’m not even suggesting that the one who admitted guilt be fired. I’m defending Nick’s actions as reasonable based on his information at the time. I agree that hiring new employees sucks, and that wrongful termination would be, well, wrong. But neither of these is what I suggested. Rather, I said that Dining Services may well know its own score better than we do.

    You’re right that the SCCS will continue to smell smoke regardless of any action Dining Services takes. However, I don’t think that’s reason enough for them not to investigate, if they feel the investigation is warranted.

    This thread feels like it’s in danger of spiraling way out of range of what was originally intended as moral support for Nick. That would be sad.

  15. I misunderstood your term “starter offense”. I was seeing it as a sort of “first offense” kind of thing, I think. It’s late and I really can’t remember what the heck I was thinking.

    On rereading everything, I think I was interpreting “starter offense” to be the sort of thing that will actively get you tracked down (like driving 20 mph over the speed limit) rather than one that’s used when the police want to stop you and need a reason (like driving with a tail light out). A lot of this point was predicated on the belief (see above) that smoking was illegal in PA, rather than just a breach of campus regulations. I’m honestly not sure what Public Safety can do about people who break rules while not breaking the law.

    I haven’t been to Tarble in a while, for obvious reasons. There used to be quite a few signs, including some on all the doors and in the stairwells.

    Ugh. Ahm scunnert wi this blether!

Nurd Up!