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When petty office squabbles boil over, take solace in one thing: It’s probably not a federal case

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

No workplaces are perfect. Co-workers, supervisors and subordinates don’t always have others’ best interests at heart.

In fact, plenty of employees will look out for themselves in an effort to get ahead. And when someone else is getting ahead, co-workers may fume that they’re paying the price. Some of them will look to the law for redress.

When it comes to interoffice feuds, employees won’t find much help in federal anti-discrimination laws. Those laws don’t guarantee a workplace free of friction and ambition—just one that’s free of illegal bias.

Recent case: Ann Cargo worked for the Alabama Board of Pardons and Parole. Cargo claimed that another employee created a hostile work environment over a period of several years. She sued.

Specifically, she said the man had lied to their boss when he claimed Cargo had changed the office thermostat—presumably against workplace rules. She said he also planned a going-away party for one of Cargo’s subordinates, placed Cargo at a bad table during an office lunch party and told her she wasn’t properly disciplining her subordinate. Finally, Cargo said that he made an off-color comment to another man in her presence.

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate the case after a lower court dismissed it. The appellate court pointed out that everything Cargo described could be attributed to rivalry except the off-color comment. But Cargo had received an apology for the comment later the same day. That hardly created a hostile environment. (Cargo v. State of Alabama, No. 09-14615, 11th Cir., 2010)

Final notes: Even in cases where co-workers really are behaving offensively, employers can take steps to limit liability. A good start: Strong anti-harassment policies that include an effective process for complaining. Harassed employees who don’t take advantage of internal complaint processes don’t have a case.

Training also helps. In fact, education sessions may be the perfect forum in which to explain harassment and encourage employees to work together without silly games.

Finally, when someone complains, make sure action is swift and punishment appropriate. That, more than anything else, will prevent future problems. Remember, when co-workers harass one another, fixing the problem limits the organization’s liability.

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