After railroad laborer Sheila White complained that her foreman sexually harassed her, her employer investigated and temporarily suspended the foreman without pay. Soon after, the company gave White's forklift duties to a male employee and reassigned her to work full time on the tracks. She kept the same pay and seniority.
When she complained, the company suspended her for insubordination. She sued, claiming sexual harassment. She also claimed that the suspension and transfer to a more demanding job amounted to retaliation.
A trial court took her side, but an appeals court disagreed, saying that neither the job transfer nor the suspension amounted to an "adverse job action," which workers have to prove to win a Title VII retaliation case.
Lateral transfers aren't adverse job actions, the court said. In this case, White was originally hired as a track maintenance worker, so track work was one of her main duties anyway. And the suspension wasn't an adverse action either because the company ultimately reinstated her with back pay. (White v. Burlington Northern and Santa Fe Railroad Co., Nos. 00-6780, 01-5024, 6th Cir., 2002)
Advice: You have the right to modify a worker's conditions; just make sure you have a legitimate business reason for it and explain those reasons to the employee. When altering an employee's duties, you'll be on safer ground if you can prove the worker kept the same salary, title and seniority. Review job descriptions, qualifications and performance history before pulling the trigger on the move.Final note: Because it acted swiftly to address, investigate and take action against the harassment complaint, this company lowered its liability risk.
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