A dressing down

If you don't wear a shirt and tie to work, you may be unstable. What else can we deduce from a decision handed down by the Federal Labor Relations Authority?

The case in point involved a fed we'll call Bill, who worked for the Bureau of Prisons facility in Three Rivers, Texas. A skin irritation forced Bill, who is a drug treatment specialist, to wear large, untucked, polo-type shirts to work rather than the customary dress shirt and tie. Bill's supervisor, who was apparently a stickler for abiding by the rules, asked Bill for a doctor's note, which he provided. Then Bill's supervisor — it must have broken his heart — asked Bill to wear a dress shirt without a tie until his skin cleared.

Bill, a union member, filed a grievance contending that the union bargaining agreement had specific provisions concerning the employee dress code and how it could be altered. The grievance went to an arbitrator who said that Bill's supervisor did not "order" Bill to change his attire, but simply requested him to do so. If he had ordered him instead of asking him, then there would have been a cause for a grievance.

The arbitrator also said that the doctor's note submitted by Bill, along with other evidence, "cast great doubt on Bill's sincerity and mental health." So, Bill was nuts? And Bill's "attitude and demeanor," the arbitrator said, "indicated a lack of respect for those in authority and were symptomatic of a mental health problem identified as Narcissistic Personality Disorder." The arbitrator denied the grievance.

So Bill and his union appealed to the FLRA. The union said the arbitrator failed to consider evidence showing that the agency did not have a policy requiring employees to wear a tie or any specific type of shirt. However, the union couldn't prove that with acceptable evidence. Then the union argued that the arbitrator was biased, but the FLRA said there was no evidence of that. Making a remark that Bill was nuts was just a remark — nothing more. Bias? What bias?

The union charged that the arbitrator exceeded his authority by changing the issue from a question of whether the agency violated the bargaining agreement to a question of Bill's mental health. The FLRA rejected that argument. It said the comments made by the arbitrator about Bill's mental health were only incidental to his decision.

Finally, the union charged that disclosing the contents of the note provided by Bill's doctor violated the Privacy Act. The FLRA said the law didn't apply to the doctor's note because it wasn't part of a system of records. Bill's appeal was denied. So now he's got to tuck in his shirt and shape up or he'll risk being labeled mentally ill. What's the moral of this story? If you like casual Fridays, don't ever work for the Bureau of Prisons or the FLRA.

Zall is a retired federal employee who since 1987 has written the Bureaucratus column for Federal Computer Week. He can be reached at [email protected].


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