April 9, 2012
Falls Church, Va. — Employers are increasingly being held accountable for their discrimination against employees. A significant number of claims filed with EEOC include job discrimination. For example, 37% of claims include race discrimination and 30% include sex discrimination.
“When it comes to employment law,” says Business Management Daily’s Senior Web Editor Elizabeth Hall, “it’s always easier—and less expensive—to learn from other employers’ mistakes rather than your own.”
Here are five recent cases that serve as good lessons for any manager:
1. Nix the nicknames: ‘Grandma’ will get even
Soon after a 54-year-old employee who’d worked at an electronics store for 17 years was demoted, she sued for age discrimination. Her evidence? A new supervisor had the habit of calling her “Grandma” and suggesting that she retire to spend time with her grandchildren. The court agreed, saying, “Calling someone ‘Grandma’ does suggest ageism.” (McDonald v. Best Buy, DC IL)
The lesson: Avoid attaching to employees nicknames that carry even the perception of being tied to a protected characteristic, such as race, age, gender, religion, national origin or disability.
2. Avoid strict ‘English-only’ language laws on employees
The case: A supervisor at a mall department store told Somali workers who sorted clothes in a basement office that they’d be fired if they spoke “even one word of Somali” to each other at work. Fortunately for the store, the case didn’t make it to court. The store stepped in after some bad publicity and threats of a lawsuit, apologized to the workers and disciplined the manager.
The lesson: You can require employees to speak English only for clear business reasons, like customer service, or safety.
3. Never badmouth employees who take FMLA leave
The case: A railroad employee was in a 26-week training program to become a train engineer. Because of his medical condition, he had to take unpaid, job-protected leave during the program. The leave was covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), which prohibits employers for punishing employees from taking such leave. However, his supervisor made comments about his absence, asking whether he was “finally done with FMLA,” and saying the leave was a “distraction.” The employee missed the final training day and he was cut from the program. He sued, claiming he’d been punished for taking FMLA leave. The court agreed, citing the supervisor’s resentful comments. (Erickson v. Canadian Pacific Railway, DC MN)
The lesson: Never retaliate against employees because they take FMLA leave or are involved in any other “protected” activity, including filing a lawsuit.
4. Inconsistent discipline: A sure loser in court
The case: An employee of Indian descent felt she was criticized for her work mistakes far more harshly than her white co-workers. So she set out to prove her thesis. She kept a notebook and tracked when she was critiqued compared with her colleagues. She was fired for insubordination and sued, claiming that the real reason was national-origin discrimination. The court sent the case—and the woman’s notebook—to a jury trial. (Reddy v. The Salvation Army, SD NY)
The lesson: Trouble will come to supervisors who issue oral and written reprimands to certain employees, yet overlook the same actions by other employees. Such inconsistency will hurt you in court, as this case shows.
5. Porn on computers can count as sexual harassment
The case: A female office employee claimed that her co-workers on three occasions exposed her to pornographic images on their computer screens. She sued for sexual harassment, saying the company did nothing to protect her. The court sided with her, saying the images “were severe enough to have altered the terms” of her employment. (Criswell v. Intellirisk, 11th Cir.)
The lesson: Don’t take a casual attitude toward employees viewing inappropriate websites on their computers. As this case shows, courts are clamping down on companies that don’t do enough to protect employees from their co-workers’ online pornography.
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