Employees do the darnedest things, and HR and managers frequently wind up trying to undo the damage. Our newest webinar — Today's Most Bizarre Recent Workplace Cases: How to Prevent Outrageous Workplace Behavior (May 28) — tells tales of outrageous employee behavior ... and the lawsuit against the employer that followed. Here’s our take on the topic, with cases pulled from the pages of our HR Specialist newsletters.

What not to ask your prospective HR director

It is an unwritten rule in polite society that anyone who feels compelled to guess a person’s age should always guess down.

Most members of the HR profession know to avoid at all costs any mention of an employee’s or applicant’s age.

That’s why it’s hard to sympathize with Joseph Kestenbaum, an investor with Unitek USA, a Pennsylvania communications firm, who reportedly asked a 55-year-old applicant seeking an HR director’s position, “How old are you, 78?”

According to the EEOC, Frank Bruno had aced his interviews with top management and was all but assured Unitek’s top HR job when he sat for his final interview with Kestenbaum. Whether Kestenbaum was trying to be funny, or whether he’s merely clueless, he thrust that ill-fated, ageist parry Bruno’s way in the guise of an interview question.

Bruno reportedly dodged, saying nothing in response. He was not offered the job, which went instead to a 36-year-old woman with half the experience.

Guess what happened next: He’s suing Unitek for age discrimination.

Lesson learned: Sure, you know not to do something so boneheaded. Others who interview candidates may not. Remind everyone involved in the hiring process about the basics: What they can and cannot ask or say—and how the process must work to make sure you’re not slapped with a discrimination lawsuit.

You never know what employees will do next. Maybe a manager will suggest his male employee wear women's clothes (EEOC v. SAC Capital). Or maybe an employee will go to court to demand the company accommodate his Internet porn addiction (Pacenza v. IBM).

How you react to such curveballs can mean the difference between a good laugh and a lawsuit.

Today's Most Bizarre Workplace Cases: How to Prevent Outrageous Workplace Behavior

Ohio snoopers disciplined for ‘Joe the Plumber’ inquiries

Three top managers at the Ohio Department of Job and Family Services (ODJFS) have been suspended without pay for using state databases to spy on Samuel Joseph Wurzelbacher, the Ohio man who became famous as “Joe the Plumber” during the 2008 presidential campaign.

Vanessa Niekamp, senior child support manager at the ODJFS, said she feared for her job when she approached the inspector general about background checks employees had performed on Wurzelbacher.

The day after the Oct.15, 2008, presidential debate that catapulted Wurzelbacher to fame, a supervisor asked Niekamp to run Wurzelbacher’s name through the agency’s computer to see whether he owed child support.

Following an inspector general's investigation, Helen Jones-Kelly, director, and Doug Thompson, deputy director of child support, were suspended without pay for a month. Fred Williams, an assistant director, received a two-week unpaid suspension. Two other managers received written reprimands.

The investigation found that Ohio state agencies conducted 18 searches in all on Wurzelbacher. Eight were done “by various agencies without any legitimate business purpose,” the report said.

Lesson learned:
Make sure your policies make clear that confidential data must remain confidential. Spell out your procedures for accessing files—both paper and electronic—and what happens to employees who violate the rules. Then don’t hesitate to punish those who snoop or otherwise compromise the security of your data and customer information.

Imagine how you’d handle these real-life bizarre situations:
  • During a team-building competition, managers at a California company forced the losing employees to wear diapers and eat baby food. How did HR respond … and is that illegal harassment?
  • An off-duty Arizona police officer operated an online video business featuring himself, his wife and inanimate objects. Can the city fire him … or is that “free speech”? (You may be surprised!)
  • Is it OK if an off-the-clock forensic scientist tests her ex-husband’s underpants for signs of an affair? What if she uses expired chemicals that would have been discarded anyway?
These outrageous actions have a few things in common. Yes, they’re all funny. But every one of them resulted in a lawsuit being filed against the employer. And even the most frivolous suit has to be responded to – costing you money and wasting your time. Learn how to avoid similar lawsuits by preventing such crazy employee behavior.

Phone propositions yield no sex — and a lost job

Michael Silvey, property management coordinator for the Department of Public Works in Hernando County, Fla., was fired for phoning and asking for sex from two women he formerly worked with at the Southwest Florida Water Management District.

According to Josephine DiViccaro, secretary for the County Department of Human Resources, Silvey made an obscene phone call to a former district co-worker, identified only as “Carol,” in August. The next day, Silvey called DiViccaro and asked if she knew why he was calling. When DiViccaro said she didn’t, Silvey said, “I’m calling you for the same reason that I called Carol yesterday. For sex.”

DiViccaro told him he needed help. Silvey reportedly responded that he didn’t need help; he needed sex.

Hernando County fired Silvey for inappropriate conduct and violating the county’s harassment policy.

Lesson learned: Maybe because she works in HR, DiViccaro knew exactly what to do: Report the harassing phone calls. Make sure every employee understands that you (1) have a harassment policy, (2) take it seriously, (3) want employees to report suspected harassment and (4) will protect them from retaliation if they do.

Our promise: Our newest webinar, Today’s Most Bizarre Workplace Cases: How to Prevent Outrageous Workplace Behavior, will certainly make you laugh. But it will also provide plenty of practical tips to help your organization avoid such legal and PR nightmares – and know how to respond if they do occur. You’ll learn:
  • What conduct truly rises to the level of “hostile environment.”
  • When can you legally fire employees for their outrageous off-duty conduct.
  • What qualifies as a true “disability” under the new ADA law.
  • What’s a legal dress code … and what goes too far.
  • Whether employees’ “private” MySpace postings can be a firing offense.
Register now for this live webinar event!

 

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