Most people want to do meaningful, satisfying work. But many jobs are just routine, boring and not particularly inspiring. Employers have no obligation to provide a perfectly harmonious workplace in which everyone is satisfied and fulfilled, knowing their work is important and makes a larger difference.
Recent case: Jena worked as a trainer, developing educational programs for other employees at the Metropolitan Water District of Southern California. She was transferred into the position after settling two sexual harassment charges with her employer. She received a cash payment, a transfer from her previous position and the promise of meaningful work in her new job.
However, she shortly became dissatisfied with the work and her working environment. She complained, for example, that she had to work in a cubicle containing a post, which made arranging office furniture challenging. Jena thought she should have instead been assigned to a cubicle with a window or at least one without any obstructions cutting into usable space.
Then she complained that she had been assigned to perform work that wasn’t “meaningful.” Much of it was rote and clerical in nature, and she had to fill out forms.
She sued, alleging race discrimination and retaliation for her earlier complaints.
This time, the water district didn’t simply settle. It dug in its heels and explained each action. First, it noted that only her supervisor and another high-ranking employee had cubicles graced by windows. It also explained that Jena’s cubicle—while interrupted by a column—was larger than most. It also told the court that race had nothing to do with cubicle assignments and that cubicles lacking windows were assigned randomly.
As to the work being meaningful, the district explained that only some of Jena’s assignments were routine and clerical, and most employees had to perform them periodically during busy times. They weren’t permanent assignments.
The court tossed out Jena’s case. It reasoned that something as trivial as a cubicle assignment wasn’t enough to discourage a reasonable employee from filing a complaint in the first place.
Plus, the court noted that failing to provide meaningful work isn’t an adverse employment action. If that’s all it took for a lawsuit, then, reasoned the court, “any action that an irritable [employee] did not like would form the basis for a lawsuit.” That would be unworkable and turn courts into de facto HR departments. (Minor v. Metropolitan Water District of Southern California, No. B235857, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2012)
Final note: Before settling a sexual harassment or other discrimination complaint, consider whether you really want the employee to stay. There’s a risk she could become a real thorn in the company’s side. Even if you give her a fresh start in another department, her very presence may mean increased litigation.
That’s what happened in this case. The employee considered everything the water district did was intentional retaliation for her prior “victory.”
It may be more expensive to settle the case with a larger cash payment, but if the agreement also includes a promise never to apply again, there won’t be more litigation later.
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