Promote harmony, prevent hostile environment by adding civility policy to your handbook

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Few reasonable employees like working in an unpleasant environment where co-workers call each other names and generally treat each other with disrespect. They may, however, ignore such conduct to avoid rocking the boat.

That doesn’t mean the behavior isn’t a problem. In fact, supervisors who don’t put a stop to it risk a hostile environment lawsuit.

That’s why you should consider adopting a civility policy that demands employees treat each other with respect and bans insults and other boorish behavior. Once the policy is in place, be sure to handle any complaints promptly and punish employees who break the rule.

Recent case: Melvin Schwarzkopf went to work for Brunswick, a fitness company. Schwarzkopf struggles with depression and anxiety.

Schwarzkopf began complaining to his supervisors that several co-workers called him names. He said he endured comments like “stupid,” “mental case,” “dumb” and “incompetent.” He said this happened daily after he told his co-workers about his mental health problems. In addition, the problem escalated when co-workers began predicting that Schwarzkopf might “go postal.”

During the course of a year, at least one of the co-workers became Schwarzkopf’s temporary supervisor and allegedly continued the insults while in that role.

When Schwarzkopf complained to higher-ups, nothing changed. The only employer action was the eventual showing of a sensitivity-training video.

Eventually, Schwarzkopf broke down and cried during a group meeting on the name-calling.

Then he took 12 weeks of FMLA leave to deal with increased anxiety and depression. He asked management to bring a halt to the alleged har­assment as a reasonable accommodation. Eventually, he filed an EEOC disability discrimination complaint, alleging he had been forced to work in a hostile work environment.

The court said Schwarzkopf could pursue his hostile work environment case. It noted that many of the comments were directly aimed at mental disabilities, and commented that saying someone might “go postal” was particularly offensive. It also reasoned that name-calling on a daily basis over an entire year affected Schwarzkopf’s ability to perform his job—as evidenced by the 12 weeks of FMLA leave he took to deal with depression and anxiety.

The court did not, however, side with Schwarzkopf on his claim that his employer refused to accommodate his disability by ordering a stop to the name-calling. Instead, the case will focus on the hostility to the disabled that the name-calling created. (Schwarzkopf v. Brunswick, No. 10-2774, DC MN, 2011)

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