When it comes to employment law, it’s always best for managers to learn from others’ mistakes rather than their own. Share these recent court cases—and the lessons learned—with your organization’s supervisors:
1. Nix the nicknames
The case: Soon after a 54-year-old employee was demoted, she sued for age discrimination. Her evidence? A new supervisor called her “Grandma” and suggested that she retire to spend time with her grandchildren. The court agreed, saying, “Calling someone ‘Grandma’ does suggest ageism.” (McDonald v. Best Buy, DC IL)
The lesson: Avoid nicknames that carry even the perception of being tied to a protected characteristic, such as race, age, gender, religion, national origin or disability.
2. Keep discipline consistent
The case: An employee of Indian descent believed she was criticized far more harshly than her white co-workers. To prove her thesis, she kept a notebook and tracked when she was critiqued compared with her colleagues.
When she was fired, she sued, saying that the real reason was national-origin discrimination. The court sent the case—and the woman’s notebook—to a jury trial. (Reddy v. The Salvation Army, SD NY)
The lesson: Trouble will come to supervisors who issue oral and written rebukes to certain employees, yet overlook the same actions by co-workers. Such inconsistency will doom you in court.
3. Never bad-mouth
The case: A railroad employee was in a 26-week training program to become a train engineer. He had to takeleave during the program. His supervisor made comments about his absence, asking whether he was “finally done with FMLA,” calling it a “distraction.”
When the employee missed the final training day, he was booted from the program. He sued, alleging he’d been punished for taking FMLA leave. The court agreed. (Erickson v. Canadian Pacific Railway, DC MN)
The lesson: Never retaliate against employees because they take FMLA leave or are involved in any other “protected” activity, including filing a lawsuit.
4. Avoid ‘English-only’ rules
The case: A department store manager told six Somali workers who sorted clothes in a basement that they’d be fired if they spoke “even one word of Somali” at work.
Luckily for the store, the case didn’t make it to court. After some bad publicity and threats of a lawsuit, the store apologized to the workers and disciplined the manager.
The lesson: You must have a clear business reason for requiring employees to speak English only. Valid exceptions: customer service situations (talking to customers in English) or dangerous conditions (when safety depends on workers using a common language).
Make sure any language rules don’t carry any hint of discrimination.
5. Web porn is sexual harassment
The case: A female office employee claimed her co-workers exposed her to pornographic images on their computer screens. She sued for sexual harassment, saying the company did nothing to protect her. The court sided with her, saying the images “were severe enough to have altered the terms” of her employment. (Criswell v. Intellirisk, 11th Cir.)
The lesson: Don’t take a casual attitude toward employees viewing inappropriate web sites on their computers. Courts are clamping down on companies that don’t do enough to protect employees from their co-workers’ online pornography.
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