HR ethics on trial: Whose side are you on?

by on
in HR Management,Human Resources

Even though HR professionals work for management, they often view themselves as unofficial “ombudsmen” for rank-and-file workers.

Sometimes, HR pros go to bat for em­­ployees when they think the company is overstepping its legal bounda­ries or generally not doing “the right thing” for the worker.

But what happens when HR sticks its neck out and, in turn, gets it chopped off? Can HR pros claim illegal retaliation if they’re fired for speaking out in support of an employee?

As this new court ruling shows, those activities aren’t necessarily “protected” under federal anti-retaliation laws, meaning HR professionals can’t claim retaliation if they’re punished afterward.

Recent case: As the VP of organizational development for a Pennsyl­vania trucking company, Mary Trapani handled many HR functions, including advising the company on FMLA compliance.

She sometimes advocated for em­­ployees who returned from FMLA leave to discover their jobs had been changed to part-time status. She almost always managed to get those decisions reversed.

When the company landed in bankruptcy court, it eliminated many positions, including Trapani’s. She sued, alleging her termination was caused, in part, by retaliation for engaging in protected activity—namely, advocating for employees.

The court rejected her claim. It said helping employees secure their rights was part of Trapani’s job description and not protected activity. Therefore, even if Trapani could prove the company fired her to get back at her, that wouldn’t be illegal retaliation.

As the ruling said, “Other courts have concluded that HR profes­sionals do not engage in protected activity unless they step out of their HR role and engage in activity that is adverse to their employer,” such as testifying for an employee at trial. (Trapani v. Greatwide Logistics Services, No. 10-334, ED PA, 2011)

Leave a Comment