by Mindy Chapman, Esq.
As an HR professional, you have an open door. And you’re always encouraging employees to ask questions about their benefits. But sometimes, that door needs to be shut … and so should your mouth. As a new lawsuit shows, repeating even the question asked by an employee can trigger a multi-claim lawsuit …
Case in Point: Claudionor Fernando Sampaio, an employee at a California trucking company, inquired about possible medical benefits for his domestic partner. Sampaio was told the company doesn’t provide insurance to domestic partners.
But it didn’t stop there.
Sampaio alleges that soon after his inquiry, co-workers and supervisors “began making frequent comments about his sexual orientation including calling him ‘Fernanda’ instead of Fernando and telling him that ‘God hates fags.'”
Sampaio says the office manager told him he could not use the restroom “because he would contaminate it.” Sampaio was the only clerical employee prevented from using the office restroom. When he did use the office restroom, “co-workers harassed him by immediately and repeatedly pounding on the bathroom door.”
Prior to learning Sampaio was gay, the company had asked him to work more hours. But soon after his domestic-partner benefits request, they terminated him because his “work was slow.”
Sampaio filed a lawsuit claiming his employer’s actions created an invasion of privacy rights and sexual harassment. The complaint alleged that, “By disclosing his confidential personal information, learned as a result of Sampaio’s inquiries regarding medical benefits, (the company) caused a serious invasion of Sampaio’s fundamental privacy interests.” (Sampaio v. Seaside Refrigerated Transp. Inc., Cal. Super. Ct., No. HG10-538707, complaint filed 9/28/10)
3 lessons learned … without going to court
1. Inquiries are private. Employees’ inquiries about any of their benefits must be treated as private and confidential.
2. Respect privacy rights. Employees have them.
3. Lawsuits are very public. They will shine the EEO spotlight on noncompliance with federal, state and local laws which will be costly to defend, impact company morale and damage your brand.
Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. Sign up to receive her blog postings at BusinessManagementDaily.com/Mindy.