Most white-collar work environments create opportunities for socializing between co-workers. Sometimes that’s good, helping colleagues exchange ideas, build professional relationships and generally enjoy a pleasant work environment. But sometimes, employees’ social interactions cross the line from productive to disruptive.
Before you punish friendly co-workers, consider quantifying their behavior. That makes it easier to defend against charges that you singled out some chatty co-workers for harsher treatment than others based on their protected status.
Recent case: Maurice, who is black, was a Pennsylvania State Trooper assigned to headquarters in Harrisburg. He worked closely with Pamela, a white, female civilian employee. Soon, co-workers and supervisors began noting that the two spent considerable time in each other’s offices, took leave on the same days and generally seemed to have developed an intensely personal relationship.
Maurice began receiving oral and written warnings from his supervisor. The boss conceded that both Maurice and Pamela did their jobs well, but asked the two to stop spending so much time together.
Maurice told an equal employment opportunity officer that he felt they were being targeted because he was a black man who was friendly with a white woman and that co-workers who socialized with co-workers of the same race hadn’t been warned or counseled about their interactions.
The supervisor then started tracking Maurice and Pamela’s office visits and found that during two workdays, they spent more than eight hours with each other in an office. Eventually, Maurice was suspended for five days.
Maurice retired and sued, alleging race discrimination.
But he couldn’t show that others spend anywhere near as much time socializing as he had done. The sheer number of hours Maurice and Pamela socialized dwarfed others. The case was dismissed. (Burton v. PSP, No. 1:11-CV-1968, MD PA, 2014)
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