HR Ethics on Trial: Whose Side Are You On?

Even though HR professionals work for management, they often view themselves as unofficial “ombudsmen” for rank-and-file workers.

Sometimes, HR pros go to bat for employees when they think the company is overstepping its legal boundaries or generally not doing “the right thing” for the worker.

But what happens when HR sticks out its neck and, in turn, gets it chopped off? Can HR professionals claim illegal retaliation if they’re fired for speaking out in support of an employee?

A new court ruling shows that those activities aren’t necessarily “protected” under federal anti-retaliation laws, meaning HR pros can’t claim retaliation if they’re punished afterward.

The case: Mary Trapani handled HR functions for a Pennsylvania trucking company, including advising the company on FMLA compliance. She sometimes advocated for employees who returned from FMLA leave to discover they’ve been move to part-time status.

MGR Handbook D

During a RIF, the company eliminated Trapani’s job. She sued, alleging her termination was retaliation for engaging in protected activity—namely, advocating for employees. The court rejected her claim. It said helping employees secure their rights was part of Trapani’s job description and not protected activity.

As the ruling said, “Other courts have concluded that HR professionals do not engage in protected activity unless they step out of their HR role and engage in activity that is adverse to their employer,” such as testifying for an employee at trial. (Trapani v. Greatwide Logistics Services, No. 10-334, ED PA, 2011)