Q: I work in a small office. A few months back, while working in a common area, I began to cough and felt allergy symptoms kick in. I saw a co-worker, whose desk is near the common area, eating peanut butter. I politely asked this co-worker if it would be possible to avoid eating peanut butter or peanuts at work, as I am highly allergic to them.
The co-worker began to argue: "I've brought it in other days and you haven't complained." I explained that I don't always announce when I notice symptoms and asked again the co-worker not to bring in peanut butter. This occurred a couple more times over the next few months. Then as I sat at my desk one day, I noticed my hand was bright red and began to feel other allergy symptoms: headache, throat tightening and so on.
I noticed peanut butter on the back of my hand and then discovered a large glob of it smeared on the underside of my desk. I showed my co-worker, who of course denied putting it there.
I then called the company owner to report the incident and was told, "Well, I don't think [the co-worker] would do something like that" and "I don't think you should be able to dictate what others can eat." So, now I have no backup and a totally awkward work environment.
A: I have to wonder what kind of person thinks, "Huh, my co-worker has one of the two deadliest food allergies in existence. You know what would be the best prank!"
And I certainly wouldn't want to be the business owner explaining to a jury how I shrugged off a complaint from a worker who later ended up dead.
"The first thing the employee needs to do is get a doctor's note validating the allergy, and the note should spell out in no uncertain terms the serious health consequences," says employment attorney Declan Leonard, a partner at Berenzweig Leonard.
Justin Dillon, partner at Kaiser Dillon, a criminal defense and civil litigation firm, recommends documenting the incidents and sending a polite follow-up email to the owner, reiterating your concern about your well-being and urging preventive action. Avoid direct accusations; your peanut-loving co-worker may well be innocent, if insensitive.
Once you've alerted the owner, it's on him to decide whether to investigate, establish a policy to limit or eliminate peanuts . . . or continue allowing you to be exposed to a known health hazard and his company to be exposed to any number of legal claims.
If your office atmosphere escalates from "awkward" to "openly hostile," seek out a peanut- and malice-free workplace before taking any further action.