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HR pros, take note: Doing your job isn’t ‘Protected activity’

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Employees whose jobs involve telling their employers that they may be violating laws aren’t necessarily protected from retaliation under North Carolina law or under the federal Title VII—if the reporting concerns areas covered by the Civil Rights Act or the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

For example, an HR manager who, in her capacity as personnel manager, tells her company it risks violating the FLSA is not engaging in protected activity. Nor is an HR director who tells the company president and vice president he is opening a sexual harassment investigation against them.

The bottom line: If your job description requires you to report possible illegal activity, don’t assume that the nature of your job gives you any additional protection. As the following case shows, the concept applies to safety directors, also.

Recent case: Carlyle Hill, who worked for the Belk Department Stores for almost 20 years, initiated a companywide safety program. He was personally responsible for the company’s safety performance. When his performance started slipping, he received warning letters. He was eventually discharged.

Hill sued, alleging he had been fired for engaging in protected activity—his ongoing responsibility to alert Belk management about safety problems and work with OSHA North Carolina to address those concerns.

The court said that, as the store’s safety expert, “Hill was acting within the scope of his employment when he investigated and reported safety hazards to both Belk and OSHANC.” It dismissed his retaliation case. In other words, simply doing one’s job isn’t protected. (Hill v. Belk Stores, No. 3:06-CV-398, WD NC, 2007)

Final note: The court did say that if Belk had ordered Hill to break a law, he would have had a wrongful discharge case under North Carolina law.

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