Trying to drive out employee can backfire

Efforts to make life so miserable for an employee that she quits can come back to haunt you. It could be seen as retaliation—even if the employee never quits.

Recent case: Yvonne, who is black, was deputy HR director at the John Jay Law School in New York. In her 12 years there, she received consistently good performance appraisals.

When the director of HR was promoted, Yvonne expressed interest in the job. But instead of following its usual hiring protocols, the school named one of Yvonne’s white co-workers the temporary director. Then, without conducting a comprehensive search, it awarded her the permanent position.

Yvonne complained that she had been discriminated against, pointing out that she had more experience and a master’s degree, which her co-worker lacked. Soon afterward, Yvonne was transferred to a job in the Student Affairs Office. There, she claimed, she heard her new boss had been instructed to “manage her out” by making her work life so miserable that she would quit.

She sued, alleging retaliation for filing her discrimination complaint.

The law school tried the “no harm, no foul” defense: Even if management told Yvonne’s new boss to try to get her to resign, the supervisor didn’t do so and Yvonne didn’t quit.

The court ruled in Yvonne’s favor, concluding that a retaliation case can rest on simply knowing that your boss was asked to try to drive you out. That, the court said, might be enough to dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination in the first place, which is the definition of retaliation. (Purdie v. City University of New York, et al., No. 13-CIV-6423, SD NY, 2015)