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Ordinary argument about job duties doesn’t add up to hostile environment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some employees are overly sensitive and don’t take criticism well. That can be a big problem when a new supervisor arrives. If she makes changes, criticizes work performance and otherwise challenges old ways of doing things, thin-skinned employees may complain about working in a hostile environment.

But just complaining about workplace unpleasantness doesn’t make a winning lawsuit.

Recent case: Keith worked for the Department of Veterans Affairs for 30 years as an orthotist and prosthetist. Then a new supervisor arrived. She closed down the lab where Keith worked and downgraded his position to a lower rank with a new job description. The two argued about the demotion.

Then Keith sued, alleging that he had to work in an age-hostile environment. But he offered no evidence the demotion was linked to his age or any evidence that the arguments were particularly intense, abusive or otherwise outside the scope of normal workplace behavior. The case was dismissed. (Culler v. Secretary of United States Veterans Affairs, No. 12-1574, 3rd Cir., 2012)

Final note: This is a classic case in which employee expectations about the workplace far exceed reality. Because you don’t know how employees will react to negative changes, it is a good idea to have two company representatives at every meeting where such changes are discussed. That gives you an additional witness who can describe exactly what happened and how the news was delivered.

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