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No critical comments about employee’s spouse

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Be cautious when discussing an employee’s spouse—especially in critical terms! That could lead to charges of discrimination on the basis of marital status.

Recent case: The medical supply company where Tracy worked held that its mission was “to enrich lives.” Tracy was the lead customer service representative.

She began taking FMLA leave to care for her husband, who was having what she described as mental health issues. She took intermittent leave when she needed to without much trouble. However, a supervisor commented during a discussion of her work that she seemed to be experiencing some problems in her personal life.

Tracy got into a series of heated arguments over some changes in the way her office was organized. She later said she had called her husband, who, concerned about Tracy, became upset about the changes. Tracy was still upset herself when she went home that night.

Shortly afterward, she was called into a meeting where a manager said that if the company had made Tracy and her husband so unhappy, perhaps they should come up with an exit strategy. Tracy got up to leave the meeting, muttering sarcastically under her breath the company mission statement: “Enriching lives.”

She was fired on the spot, allegedly for mocking the motto.

Tracy sued, alleging, among other claims, marital status discrimination.

The court said she had made a prima facie case for discrimination. The comment about her spouse being unhappy, followed by almost immediate termination, could mean the company viewed an unhappy spouse as a liability and it didn’t want an employee whose spouse disapproved of the company. (Harrell v Handi Medical Supply, DC MN, 2017)

Final note: Eventually, the court did conclude that Tracy had been fired for mocking the mission statement. It dismissed her lawsuit.

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