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How to Give an Unoffensive Compliment and More of Your Questions for December

Like the perils of asking family for investment money and what you can and cannot do when it comes to letting go of an employee with physical limitations.





Are you allowed to require employees to sign agreements that they can perform certain physical tasks such as going up and down steps/ladders, lift certain amounts, stand for a certain number of hours? If an employee becomes unable to perform these tasks, can they be let go?

You’re entering a tricky legal area here because the law — specifically the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) — puts a heavy burden on employers to accommodate workers’ physical limitations. And this starts at the hiring stage. You can’t make broad inquiries during a job interview about any disabilities a person may have, although you may ask if one appears to be job-related. But even then, “the fact that an employee or applicant states that he or she is unable to perform a task associated with the job at issue, still does not mean that an employer can refuse to hire or discharge an employee,” says Dan Clark, a labor and employment partner at law firm Vorys, Sater, Seymour and Pease LLP. You have to be able to show the task the employee cannot perform is an “essential function” of the job. “The basic inquiry is whether the job function is one for which the employee was hired to perform or one tangentially related to the job. For instance, when hiring a bus driver, the ability to drive in darkness or bad weather may be an essential function, but the ability to change a bus tire, while useful, might not be an essential function.” And again, even if the task is regarded as essential, the employer must also show they have made reasonable efforts to help the worker such as, for example, re-arranging schedules, re-training, or modifying equipment. “In the case of an employee with limitations on the ability to stand for a long time, providing a chair or stool might be a reasonable accommodation,” says Clark. “Only if an employee is unable to perform an essential function and no reasonable accommodation is available could a disabled employee be discharged.” As for asking the employee to sign a contract acknowledging his or her ability to perform certain job functions, “this … would not allow the employer to avoid the requirements of the ADA if circumstances were to change,” says Clark. Many states also have their own laws regarding disabled employees; you would be wise to consult a lawyer before proceeding with any plans in this area.

Do you have any quick tips on how to compliment people in this sensitive age? It seems such a minefield these days.

“You’re so brave to wear that.” “Your English is excellent.” “Your hair is so exotic.” Yes, indeed it is easy to unintentionally offend someone (that’s actually always been the case — people are just less likely to put up with it these days). With just a little care you should still be able to use praise to quickly get on a customer’s good side. Stay away from anything physical or related to their heritage or physical characteristics. Praising a customer’s personality is also usually safe ground, especially if you’ve honestly enjoyed the transaction, so let them know. (“Gosh, I haven’t had so much fun serving anybody in a long time!”).

I’ve hired a new employee but she won’t start for a few months. How can I keep her excited and lessen the risk she might change her mind?

Think small, but considerate gestures, says Jack Mitchell, one of the country’s leading clothing retailers and the author of Hug Your Customers. Mitchell tells the story of a superstar salesperson with Macy’s who, after much wooing, finally agreed to come work at Mitchell’s store. Says Mitchell: “We could sense it was a big decision for her, because she is a very loyal and committed person…So we sent her flowers with a handwritten note welcoming her to Mitchell’s and telling her how bright her future was here.” A few years later, during a seminar, the sales associate told the flower story and revealed something that Mitchell didn’t know: right after she had agreed to join Mitchell’s, Macy’s had made her a counter-offer. While driving home, she was having mixed feelings, but when she arrived at the house and saw the bouquet of flowers and read Mitchell’s personal note welcoming her aboard, she was very touched and decided to go ahead with the job switch. The lesson? Mitchell answers: “Most people think a hot button is something big, but it can also be incredibly small.”

I want to expand my business but am low on cash. I was thinking of hitting up my parents. Good idea?

Man turns his back on his family, well he just ain’t no good… Now if you’d asked Bruce Springsteen for advice he might have said sure, go for it. But our less lyrical suggestion would be to think twice. Instead of trying to get all the cash from your parents, see if you can’t raise half of it from neutral sources first. That way you bring some outside perspective and scrutiny. It also sends the right message: That this is about investment funds or a business loan, not a gift. You also reduce the risk of having your parents interfere in the business.


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