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Iron out union, legal issues

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Q. We have an apparent conflict between our union agreement and our responsibility to maintain a harassment-free workplace. The agreement says we must give the shop steward 48 hours' notice before dismissing a regular employee. But we have proof positive that two employees have been harassing—and continue to harass—African-American and gay employees. The two harassers have just caused us to lose a good employee who couldn't take it any longer. What trumps what? —J.V., Louisiana

A. Union obligations can conflict with legal obligations, but there is no rule of thumb as to what trumps what. In this case, you may run into a problem with the union if you have known about the harassment for more than two days but failed to take action sooner or to give the union notice of your plans to discharge the workers.

Two options to consider: (1) Talk to the union steward now about the situation and your need to act. He or she may concur that 48-hour notice is impractical under the circumstances, particularly if the harassment is egregious. (2) Notify the steward of the dismissal and put the workers on leave for the 48-hour period if that wouldn't conflict with the agreement.

Given the potential conflict between union obligations and legal obligations in the area of harassment, consider addressing this issue in your next round of collective bargaining.

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