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Isolated incident or slight doesn’t add up to retaliation

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No matter what you do, the workplace will never be free of tensions and annoyances. Although it’s a good idea to encourage courtesy and cordiality, you don’t have to worry that every little slight might come back in the form of a lawsuit.

Recent case: Lucica Icleanu, who was born in Romania, claimed her co-workers once told her that she—an  immigrant—was the reason other Americans couldn’t find jobs. Icleanu complained to management, which then told the co-workers that any comments on national origin or immigration status were off limits at work.

Icleanu sued anyway, claiming her co-workers decided not to celebrate her birthday in retaliation. Ordinarily, the company threw a once-a-month party for everyone who had a birthday in that month. During the month in question, Icleanu was the only employee who had a birthday.

The court tossed out her claim, reasoning that something as minor as a missed birthday party wasn’t retaliation—no reasonable person would find that sort of behavior severe enough to lodge a discrimination claim. It also concluded that the isolated comment on immigrants, which stopped when management stepped in, didn’t create a hostile-work environment. (Icleanu v. American Baptist Churches, No. 06-2812, ED PA, 2007)

Final note: If the birthday incident had been one of many similar incidents, Icleanu might have had a case. But employers aren’t required to provide a perfect work environment—just a reasonable one. 

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