By Rights... Answers to Your Human Rights Questions

Column 2

In this column:

  • Prohibiting "Offensive" Magazines in the Workplace --
    Equal Standards for His and Hers?
  • Renting Out a Room -- When can a Landlord Discriminate?
  • Lying About Your Health on a Job Application

Prohibiting "Offensive" Magazines in the Workplace -- Equal Standards for His and Hers?

During my break at work, I happened to be looking at a magazine, the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue. Marsha, a co-worker, walked by my cube, saw the magazine, and practically ran down the hall to talk to our supervisor. That afternoon, he called me into his office and reprimanded me for bringing "inappropriate" reading matter to the workplace. I protested. "You could get us sued," he said, and I could tell by the way he said it that I'd better shut up if I wanted to keep my job. But this is totally unfair -- it's ridiculous. Marsha has a catalog in her office from some women's store that sells clothing, including lingerie, and the pictures show just as much or more than most men's magazines. And here's the kicker: she gets the catalog delivered to her, right here at work! I also saw her in the lunchroom just a few weeks ago, reading a certain women's magazine with headlines on the cover that frankly embarrassed me. Nobody's ever said anything about what she reads at work. If they're going to chew me out, doesn't my company have to apply the same standards to her? I don't think anything I did violated any law.

The Commissioner says:

The situation you describe doesn't amount to sexual harassment in terms of the Human Rights Act. But there would be a reason for concern if someone showed female employees the photos in your magazine and made crude comments about how they'd look in the swimsuits the models were wearing, or if the lunchroom chatter included graphic discussion of the topics that made you blush when you saw the cover of Marsha's magazine.

An employer has a right to adopt sexual harassment polices that restrict certain kinds of behavior, even if that behavior isn't serious enough to violate the Act. But the employer should treat all employees -- and all reading matter with similar content or illustrations -- the same under its policy. It's hard to say, though, if your magazine and your coworker's catalog and the magazine she had in the lunchroom are really comparable. To avoid such difficulties in the future, you may want to ask your company's Human Resources staff to clarify the policy on personal reading material. You could also suggest they issue a memo to all employees explaining what kinds of conduct might constitute a "hostile environment" under the policy.

Renting Out a Room -- When can a Landlord Discriminate?

I'm divorced, I was laid off from my job, and times are tough. So I'm thinking about renting out the second floor of my house, which I could set up with a stove and refrigerator and pretty much rent out as a separate apartment. My concern is: I don't want to sound like I'm bigoted, but I'd feel better renting to someone whose background and culture is similar to mine. I've got nothing against certain kinds of people -- I just don't want them living in my house. There are a lot of those people moving into my part of town already, and I'm worried that if I refuse to rent to someone, I could get slapped with a discrimination suit. Don't I have the right to choose who's going to be living under my own roof?

The Commissioner says:

Before you take on the role of landlord, you should check out your community's ordinances on rental properties and be sure your "separate apartment" upstairs complies with those conditions. If it does, there are some exemptions in the Human Rights Act that let a landlord impose some restrictions on who he or she rents to in certain circumstances. If you are renting a room or some rooms in a one-family dwelling that you occupy, you can decline a tenant because of their sex, marital status, disability, sexual orientation, or receipt of public assistance. The resident owner of a building with two units can refuse to accept tenants because of sexual orientation. And a resident owner of a building with four or fewer units can decline to rent because of familial status - which means someone who has one or more minor children living with them.

I would suggest, however, that if your goal is to make some money by renting out space you aren't using in your home, you would want to select tenants based on their ability to pay the rent and their history as responsible renters. You are entitled to the exemptions I've mentioned, but screening out "certain kinds of people" based on those exemptions won't guarantee that you'll get good renters, or people who truly share your values.

Lying About Your Health on a Job Application

When I applied for a job as an accountant seven years ago, I was asked to fill out a form with some health questions, including one about hospitalization. I did not mention that three years earlier, I had been hospitalized for five weeks for depression and anxiety. I had also worked hard in two years of therapy to address a lot of issues from early childhood. It seemed like none of my employer's business, and naturally, I worried that I wouldn't get the job. Unfortunately, now I'm finding that my work is increasingly stressful, there are problems in my marriage, and my wife is urging me to go back into therapy. I believe this is a good idea, and there is coverage available through my employer's health plan. But I'm concerned that if I take this step, it might come out that I lied about my hospitalization on my job application. I'm worried that could be grounds for termination, or at least, for the insurer to deny my claim. What are my options?

The Commissioner says:

Much depends on whether your employer's questions about your health, seven years ago, were proper or illegal under the Human Rights Act. Under the Act, an employer can require a physical exam or health history only after a contingent offer of employment is made, and only if the information relates to legitimate job requirements. Employee health information can't be requested just to "weed out" people with certain kinds of health problems that don't limit their ability to do the work, or those who have disabilities that can reasonably be accommodated. After hiring a person, an employer can get a health history for insurance and workers' compensation purposes, but there are restrictions on how it can be used.

Your deception could be discovered, and some employers have a strict policy of terminating employees at any time if they learn of a misrepresentation of their qualifications and background. But if obtaining information about your health history wasn't permissible under the Human Rights Act, it probably can't be used against you at this point. As to the insurer denying benefits, there are insurance laws that regulate exclusions for pre-existing conditions, and after seven years, this probably isn't an issue. You can contact the Minnesota Department of Commerce, which regulates the insurance industry, to find out more about insurance issues. Call their insurance division at 651-297-7161 or visit their web site at www.commerce.state.mn.us.

Get back to us if this turns out badly for you, and we'll get more details to see if a discrimination charge is appropriate.

The answers in these columns are not intended as legal advice. The Department of Human Rights does not make a judgment on any case without carefully examining all the facts.

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