Employees who oppose their employer’s illegal or discriminatory conduct are protected from retaliation. But that doesn’t mean such employees have the right to be insubordinate, rude and nasty. There’s a fine line between voicing opposition to a practice and challenging superiors in an insolent way.
Recent case: Jacque Johnson managed the Charlotte operations of the Mechanics & Farmers Bank, the institution’s poorest-performing section. The Charlotte operation was well below expected revenues, and the bank blamed Johnson for the problems.
The bank offered him another position, but he refused to consider a move. Johnson lost out on an incentive bonus and was placed on a performance-improvement plan.
Things didn’t improve. Then two of Johnson’s subordinates got into an argument at work.
HR called in an outside expert to determine what had happened and who was to blame. The consultant concluded that one of the two subordinates was at fault for the incident. The bank ordered Johnson to fire the subordinate.
Johnson disagreed and demanded to see the investigation file. After he reviewed the information, he refused to fire the subordinate. He told his supervisor in an e-mail that the consultant was unprofessional, should receive training in “the logical analysis of data” so that he could complete “a competent and unbiased investigation.” The bank fired Johnson for insubordination.
He sued, countering that he had engaged in protected conduct by opposing an allegedly illegal decision to fire a subordinate.
But the court looked at the facts and said there was no objective information to support Johnson’s position. Plus, the court said the tone of the Johnson’s comments and e-mail was “unmistakably insubordinate and insolent.” (Johnson v. Mechanics & Farmers Bank, No. 07-1725, 4th Cir., 2009)