We’d all like to work in a pleasant, conflict-free environment. Quite often, that simply isn’t possible.
That’s why companies need workplace rules that discourage friction. That’s why the law absolutely forbids any form of harassment based on race, sex, disability or other protected characteristics. And that’s why good HR managers know they must respond promptly to harassment complaints.
Even so, employers can’t be expected to provide a perfect workplace. Minor annoyances, favoritism or other unfair treatment aren’t enough to sustain a discrimination lawsuit. Neither employers nor courts want to play kindergarten teacher and mandate a perfect work world. As the following case shows, employees have to be able to tolerate some uncomfortable moments without resorting to the legal system for relief.
Recent case: Jessica Lockett, who is black, worked for Bayer Healthcare. Lockett frequently complained that her supervisor treated her unfairly.
Each time she complained, the HR department investigated. And each time, it concluded that there was no need to intervene. Lockett never mentioned race or racial harassment. Instead, she complained that co-workers sometimes walked across the street to avoid her, that her supervisor wouldn’t let her leave the premises without clocking out and that co-workers resented her.
Then HR learned from co-workers that Lockett might have falsified production documents. After concluding that the allegations were true, the company fired Lockett. She then sued for race discrimination.
The court threw out the case. It said that employers cannot force employees to socialize with one another, and that ostracism isn’t generally an adverse employment action. It takes much more than that to create a true hostile work environment. Harsh, repetitive verbal abuse tinged with racial, sexual or other animosities is one thing—refusing to share a lunch table in the cafeteria is another. (Lockett v. Bayer Healthcare, No. C-05-03978, ND CA, 2008)
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