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Minor workplace changes won’t lose discrimination case

by on
in Employment Law,Human Resources

Supervisors and managers often treat employees who have been known to complain about discrimination with kid gloves. They try to do everything possible to avoid antagonizing sensitive workers with chips on their shoulders.

Small wonder that co-workers sometimes come to resent those employees: The hands-off attitude can look like preferential treatment.

Avoid this potentially toxic situation by explaining to managers and supervisors that only adverse employment actions can lead to lawsuits. Minor workplace changes probably won’t provide ammunition for yet another discrimination complaint.

To qualify as “adverse,” the discipline or action must affect employment or significantly alter workplace conditions. As the following case shows, a slight change in working conditions that’s part of a larger initiative won’t lead to a successful lawsuit.

Recent case: Cynthia McKay is hearing impaired, has a learning disability and suffers from a speech impediment. She sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), where she worked. She claimed that her supervisor resented having to look at her—a disabled person—and therefore moved her office to a different location. She complained that the new work space was cramped and isolated.

But the USDA explained to the court that the move was a matter of relocating McKay’s office a mere 10 feet. It was part of an office redesign that would allow the agency to make room for more employees. The agency argued that such a minor change was not an adverse employment action because it did not alter McKay’s employment conditions.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals agreed that McKay had no case. (McKay v. Johanns, No. 06-60944, 5th Cir., 2008)

Final note: Could this have been retaliation? Only if McKay could show that a reasonable employee would have been dissuaded from complaining about discrimination if she knew she might be moved to another office. That’s pretty unlikely.

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