OK to punish employees for disruptive acts–even if done in the context of protesting bias

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Employees are protected from retaliation for opposing discriminatory employer practices. But that doesn’t mean they can voice that opposition in a disruptive or discourteous way.

Recent case: Janice Hubbell, who is white, worked at World Kitchen’s glass factory, south of Pittsburgh. By all accounts, she had trouble getting along with co-workers and supervisors. Hubbell, however, blamed her problems on what she perceived as the company’s discrimination against older, white women and women in general. She claimed that women received harsher discipline, and that black women had an easier time getting the union to help them with grievances.

Hubbell wrote a letter to management complaining about the discrimination she perceived around her. The letter, which ended up on a bulletin board, also alleged that some of her black co-workers were lazy and worked only to support their drug habits.

The company issued her a written warning, explaining that it considered some of the comments in her letter harassment.

Hubbell sued, alleging that she had engaged in protected activity when she wrote and posted the letter.

The court said that while Hubbell did oppose alleged discrimination by complaining, other parts of the letter didn’t amount to protected activity. Therefore, it was legitimate for World Kitchen to discipline her. If World Kitchen couldn’t punish such behavior, the court reasoned, employees could engage in any disruptive behavior without fear. That’s not what the anti-retaliation provisions were meant to do. (Hubbell v. World Kitchen, et al., No. 06-1686, WD PA, 2010)

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