The strangest employment law stories of 2023

Experienced HR professionals have learned that you never say, “Now I’ve seen everything!” because the bizarre things that happen in the workplace never cease to amaze. Let’s count down a few of the most bizarre cases of 2023. I’ve chosen my favorite five, but there was certainly no shortage of material last year.

#5: Sorry, kids, Halloween’s cancelled

Hollywood came to a virtual standstill after multiple strikes in 2023. There were many tense moments leading up to new collective bargaining agreements between the entertainment industry and unions representing writers and actors, but none stranger than what happened last October.

As we approached Halloween, SAG-AFTRA issued a directive that striking actors should not dress up as film or television characters during holiday celebrations. The reasoning: That might be interpreted as supporting the studios’ movies and TV shows. Things got especially heated when a debate developed among union members as to whether the ban applied to their children. Actor Ryan Reynolds tweeted, “I look forward to screaming ‘scab’ at my 8 year-old all night. She’s not in the union, but she needs to learn.”

Just in time to save the cherished evening of candy collecting, SAG-AFTRA clarified that the ban did not apply to actors’ children, generating relief throughout the neighborhoods of Malibu.

#4: Who’s harassing whom?

When a law school received complaints from several women that a high-profile professor had pressured them into sexual relationships while they were his students, the university responded as every HR professional would expect—they conducted an investigation. At the conclusion of the investigation, the school announced publicly that the professor had resigned “rather than face a termination proceeding that we were ready to start.” Pretty predictable. But what happened next was far from normal.

The professor filed a lawsuit in the summer of 2023 against the two women who went public with their allegations, asserting claims for defamation and seeking an eye-popping $108 million in damages. He described the relationships as “100% mutual and consensual” and accused the now-practicing attorneys of engaging in a “vindictive crusade to destroy him.”

But he wasn’t done yet. In the fall, the professor sued the law school, claiming that the investigation into his alleged sexually harassing behavior constituted sexual harassment against him. Specifically, he asserts that the investigation was biased in favor of the women and against him as a man.

This seems like a matter that could return to this list in 2024…

#3: Pee practices under attack

In an August 2023 ruling, a federal district court judge in New York refused to dismiss claims brought under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act by an employee who claims she was unlawfully fired. The case raises the important issue of workplace urination policies.

The railroad employee was fired shortly after she was witnessed urinating in the rail yard. She contends that the real reason she was fired is because she is transgender. In support of her position, the worker noted that the company does not have any formal rules prohibiting peeing in the rail yard and that other employees had engaged in such conduct without being punished. She even contended that employees believed that this practice was endorsed by the company as it would avoid trips to the restroom, saving time.

Raising the age-old question for employers: hygiene or efficiency?

#2: Now hiring Grinches

To ensure customers have an excellent experience when visiting a Trader Joe’s grocery store, the company evaluates employees on whether they “treat customers as welcome guests.” This includes whether a “worker smiles, acknowledges customers, and assists them.” Seems reasonable for an employer in the competitive retail grocery industry, right?

Not according to the union that represents Trader Joe’s employees, which filed an unfair labor practice charge against the company over the performance standard. According to the labor organization, requiring workers to smile at work unlawfully limits their ability to express their negative feelings regarding workplace conditions.

Rather than fight the matter before the National Labor Relations Board, where employers rarely win, Trader Joe’s agreed to drop the smiling expectation and the union dropped the charge.

A victory for Grinches everywhere!

#1: Saucy sex scandal

The 11th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed a sexual-harassment and gender-bias case in May, finding that a worker at a chicken-processing plant in Alabama was lawfully fired, despite unusual antics that were occurring at the facility.

According to the worker, who was an inventory clerk, he was repeatedly propositioned by a female manager at the facility. He eventually engaged in a sexual relationship with her, which included trysts in her office. But then he claimed he was terminated after he refused to allow the manager’s male boss (who was rumored to be in his own romantic relationship with the female manager) to watch them have sex.

The court found the alleged behavior didn’t rise to the level of unlawful sexual harassment since the inventory clerk admitted that the relationship was consensual. Further, the two managers were not involved in the decision to terminate his employment for having too many absences and taking too many smoke breaks.

I forgot to mention one interesting fact: The female employee who propositioned the worker was the HR manager at the plant, and her boss was the director of HR.

Yet another reason I never say, “I’ve seen it all!”

Joe Beachboard leads the Beachboard Consulting Group of concierge employment law counselors. He is also the moderator of Business Management Daily’s upcoming Labor & Employment Law Advanced Practices Conference. Taking place March 20–22 at Caesars Palace Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas, LEAP 2024 marks the conference’s 20th anniversary as America’s premier employment law learning event. Among LEAP’s more than 30 sessions in March will be “Most Bizarre Employment Law Cases of 2023,” an annual participant favorite.