Harsh criticism alone isn’t discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Few workplaces are perfect, and it’s the rare supervisors who has never uttered an angry word. But some employees are too sensitive to criticism. While yelling and screaming may be uncomfortable, it usually doesn’t reach the level required for a court to conclude that it’s hostile.

Even then, the behavior has to relate to a protected characteristic like sex, age, race or religion.

Recent case: Mary began working at National Fuel in 1980, ultimately achieving a senior service position. Her responsibilities included visiting customers’ homes to investigate suspected gas leaks, as well as servicing gas-fired appliances, gas meters and gas pipelines. When she got a new supervisor in 2009, she immediately began to complain that he was picking on her.

In fact, the supervisor was criticizing her record-keeping and found discrepancies between what she reported doing on her time sheet and what she actually had done. Mary reported that she was being “bullied” and held to too high a standard. HR investigated and concluded the new supervisor was not acting unreasonably.

Then Mary investigated a leak at a customer’s home, but couldn’t locate it. Another employee followed up and Mary was disciplined for not finding the leak.

She sued, alleging she worked in a hostile environment.

But her complaint was light on specific examples of bullying, and noted none that could be tied to her sex or other protected characteristic. The court tossed out her case, concluding she had experienced criticism, but nothing outrageous. (Lynch v. National Fuel Gas Distribution Corporation, No. 12-CV-6095L, WD NY, 2014)

Final note: It’s often the arrival of a new supervisor that creates conflict where none was apparent before. It may be a good idea for new supervisors to explain their management style up front, especially if the old supervisor had a long relationship with the subordinate.

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