Handbook calls for civility? Enforce the policy

Many employers have revised their handbooks to include language requiring all employees to treat one another—as well as customers—with respect. The reason is clear: A workplace full of squabbling, name-calling and other unproductive activity is unpleasant at best, and can easily morph into a truly hostile work environment.

But that doesn’t mean that em­­ployees who feel “disrespected” have grounds for a lawsuit. The fact is, petty squabbles are part of life, whether the handbook calls for civility or not.

Recent case: Leandra worked for Nutrisystem as a customer service representative, taking calls from customers and handling their complaints and orders. The company handbook requires all employees to treat one another and customers with respect and dignity. When she started, Leandra acknowledged receiving a copy of the handbook.

Before long, Leandra began complaining that her co-workers were making life unpleasant. She allegedly overheard one saying that she “looked like s**t,” and another im­­plied she took time off because she was “crazy.” After she complained, her co-workers were reminded to be civil, but apparently nothing changed.

Then Leandra was caught doing schoolwork while she was on duty. She was also observed hanging up on customers and simply picking up the phone but saying nothing when customers called. Nutrisystem fired her for breaking the civility rules concerning customers.

Leandra sued, alleging discrimination and retaliation for her own complaints.

But the court tossed out her case. It reasoned that employers don’t have to provide a perfectly harmonious work environment free from all petty annoyances. Plus, it said Nutrisystem was free to punish an employee who didn’t treat customers with re­­spect. The handbook’s requirement for all-around civil behavior was irrelevant to that point. (Allen v. Nutrisystem, No. 11-4107, ED PA, 2013)