October 16, 2014

Workplace bullying: on the job with Scut Farkus

Posted in Bullying, Bullying, Cyber Bullying, Discrimination, Harassment, Harassment, Hostile Work Environment, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , at 10:30 am by Tom Jacobson

Scut Farkus

Scut Farkus – future workplace bully?

In the holiday classic A Christmas Story, playground bully Scut Farkus torments Ralphie Parker until Ralphie pummels Scut after one too many snowballs to the face. We cheer for Ralphie because he’s the good kid who takes a stand against Scut’s relentless bullying. But what happens when Scut gets a job? What is the law on workplace bullying?

I recently attended a community conversation about workplace bullying. The discussion confirmed that there is much confusion about the topic. The debate is no doubt fueled by recent media attention and legislative attempts to regulate bullying.

Those efforts have been partially successful in the school setting. For example, the State of Minnesota earlier this year passed the Safe and Supportive Schools Act. This new law defines and regulates bullying in the state’s public and charter schools. However, workplace bullying is neither defined nor prohibited by any state or federal law.

Even if the conduct creates a hostile work environment, bullying alone is not unlawful unless the behavior violates some other established law. Recent court decisions emphasize how difficult it is to turn garden-variety bullying into a legal claim.

For example, in Johnson v City University of New York, an employee claimed that a co-worker’s bullying violated Title VII. The judge last month threw out the case, saying:

Victims of non-discriminatory bullying at the workplace, like those treated unfairly for reasons other than their membership in a protected class, must look outside Title VII to secure what may be their fair due. The Court does not condone bullying, but it cannot read Title VII to protect its victims unless the bullying reflects discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin.

The Minnesota Court of Appeals last year overturned a $270,000.00 Ramsey County jury verdict in favor of an employee who reported being bullied by his boss (see Absey v. Dish Network, LLC). Because Minnesota has no anti-workplace bullying law, the plaintiff’s legal theory was actually based on Minnesota’s whistle-blower law, Minn. Stat. § 181.932. In reversing the jury’s verdict, the Court of Appeals ruled that the plaintiff failed to prove that the employer’s adverse action against him was because he complained about his boss.

Bullied employees have found some limited success in the courts. In one Indiana case, Raess v. Doescher, an employee won a lawsuit based on his employer’s behavior, which the court described as “aggressively and rapidly advanc[ing] on the plaintiff with clenched fists, piercing eyes, beet-red face, popping veins, and screaming and swearing at him.” This conduct could certainly be characterized as “bullying,” but the plaintiff won his case not because he was “bullied” but because the jury found the employer’s conduct to be an assault under Indiana law.

These cases underscore the current reality that when employees are confronted by a Scut Farkus-like co-worker, there are no laws specifically defining or prohibiting workplace bullying. However, if the bully’s conduct is egregious enough, there already exist other legal claims that could provide recourse. In addition to assault and whistle-blower claims, it is conceivable that under the right set of facts, bullied employees could successfully sue for intentional infliction of emotional distress, negligence or other wrongs based on another employee’s bullying behaviors. And, when bullying is based on employees’ protected class status, they may have viable claims under Title VII and/or comparable laws.

But rather than litigation and legislation, perhaps the better solution is to curb such behaviors through better employment policies and practices that encourage and model respectful working relationships.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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October 9, 2014

Employment retaliation: the high cost of revenge

Posted in Discrimination, National Origin, Race, Retaliation, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tagged , , , , , , at 7:40 pm by Tom Jacobson

Kinkead 10-10-14

While seeking revenge, dig two graves; one for yourself. Douglas Horton

Most laws granting rights to employees include anti-retaliation provisions intended to protect the employees who exercise those rights. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is no exception. Buffalo, MN based Izza Bending Tube & Wire and Wells Fargo & Co. recently learned that lesson the expensive way. That is, via costly settlements of EEOC employment retaliation charges.

Both cases were investigated by the Minneapolis, MN area office of the EEOC. In the Wells Fargo case, the EEOC determined that an employee reported to the company’s human resources department that she was being subjected to differential treatment based on her race and national origin. The agency also found that the employee’s supervisor told her not to speak Spanish during her non-duty time. Shortly after the employee’s report, the EEOC found, Wells Fargo disciplined and then terminated the employee for practices other employees regularly engaged in without discipline. This, the EEOC concluded, violated the employment retaliation provisions of Title VII.

To resolve the charge, Wells Fargo agreed to pay $295,000.00. The company also agreed to:

  • Conduct training on the laws prohibiting employment discrimination, with special emphasis on employment retaliation and English-only speaking requirements;
  • Distribute to all employees an annual e-mail affirming its commitment to diversity, multilingual ability and the use of languages other than English in the workplace;
  • Report to the EEOC all allegations of discrimination or employment retaliation annually for three years.

In the Izza case, the EEOC alleged that a manager first instructed an employee to not hire a black temporary worker for a permanent position and then told the employee to get rid of him because of his race. The EEOC further alleged that after the employee filed a discrimination charge with the EEOC, she was laid off and then terminated in retaliation. Izza settled the case by paying $45,000.00 and agreeing to train employees and report any retaliation complaints to the EEOC.

The main takeaway from these cases is that retaliating against employees who exercise their Title VII rights is by itself a violation of Title VII, and resolving those cases can be extremely expensive. The same holds true for employees who exercise their rights under the Minnesota Human Rights Act and many other employment laws. Moreover, preserving access to the justice system by fighting employment retaliation under Title VII is one of the EEOC’s 2013-2016 Strategic Enforcement Plan priorities. Therefore, employers would be wise to make prohibiting employment retaliation one of their HR priorities. Or, start digging.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

October 6, 2014

Disciplining off-duty conduct: why the NFL model doesn’t work in the real world

Posted in Application Process, Arrest records, Background Checking, Ban the Box, Child Abuse and Neglect, Conviction Records, Credit Checks, Criminal History, Discrimination, Fair Credit Reporting Act, Interviewing, Minnesota Human Rights Act, Negligence, Negligent Hiring, Negligent Retention, Negligent Supervision, Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 tagged , , , , , , , , at 4:15 pm by Tom Jacobson

Police light122811Imagine that you’re an HR director and a security-cam video supposedly depicting one of your key employees knocking out his girlfriend in an elevator ends up on YouTube for the world to see. Or, imagine that one of your key employees is indicted for abusing his son after photos allegedly depicting the boy’s wounds from his dad’s switch go viral. Imagine further that neither incident occurred on your company’s premises or while the employee was on the job.

Sound familiar?

Fortunately, most of us never have to deal with employees who make headlines like Ray Rice and Adrian Peterson (see Ray Rice Terminated by Team, Suspended by NFL after New Violent Video, CNN Sept. 16, 2014; Minnesota Vikings Reverse Course, Suspend Adrian Peterson, ABC News Sept. 17, 2014). However, all employers must occasionally confront the challenge of what to about an employee’s off-duty misconduct.

With the suspensions of Rice and Peterson fresh in our minds, it may seem like an easy solution: suspend or fire any employee who is charged with or convicted of a crime that we find repulsive or contrary to our organization’s values. That may work in the NFL, but for the rest of the working world, it’s not that simple. There are many laws that limit how employers may use such information.

One example is Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Among other things, this law prohibits racial discrimination in employment. Applying Title VII, the courts have said that the overly restrictive use of criminal background information in the workplace is unlawful because it disproportionately excludes certain racial groups from employment.

So, what is too restrictive? There is no hard and fast rule, but the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, which enforces Title VII, has provided some guidance (see Background Checks: What Employers Need to Know). Specifically, the EEOC first stresses that employers who obtain criminal history information about employees or applicants must do so uniformly: doing it for only members of protected classes will violate Title VII.

The EEOC also notes that once such information is obtained, it must be used in a non-discriminatory way:

  • The same standards must be applied to everyone.
  • A policy or practice must not exclude people with criminal records if the policy or practice significantly disadvantages individuals with a protected characteristic and does not accurately predict who will be a responsible, reliable, or safe employee. As stated by the EEOC, the policy or practice is unlawful if it has a “disparate impact” on protected employees and is not “job related and consistent with business necessity.”
  • Be prepared to make exceptions for problems potentially caused by disabilities.

To determine whether a person’s criminal history is “job related and consistent with business necessity” under Title VII, employers need to consider: the nature and gravity of the offense or conduct; the time that has passed since the offense or conduct and/or completion of the sentence; and the nature of the job held or sought (see Enforcement Guidance on the Consideration of Arrest and Conviction Records in Employment Decisions Under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, EEOC April 25, 2012).

Another federal law, the Fair Credit Reporting Act, also applies when employers hire a third party to conduct background checks. The FCRA includes requirements about what employers must do before obtaining such information and what they must do before and after taking adverse action based on the reports obtained. The FCRA is enforced by the Federal Trade Commission, which has published a summary of employers’ obligations under the law (see Using Consumer Reports: What Employers Need to Know, FTC Jan. 2012).

For Minnesota employers, the state’s “Ban the Box” law (Minn. Stat. Sect. 364.021) presents another challenge. Like Title VII, this law does not prevent an employer from considering a person’s criminal history when making work-related decisions. It does, however, restrict when that information may be obtained or used. Specifically, the law prohibits employers from inquiring into or considering criminal records or history until after applicants have been selected for an interview or, if there is no interview, after a conditional offer of employment is made.

With all of these restrictions, why even bother looking into someone’s off-duty conduct?

Despite these challenges, it’s still good business to hire and keep employees who fit well with the organization. And, there are  risk-management reasons for doing background checks.

For example, if a Minnesota employer does not check an applicant’s background thoroughly enough, it can be held liable for negligently hiring someone who later harms another. That was the situation in the case of Ponticas v. K.M.S. Investments where a landlord was held responsible for its property manager’s sexual assault of a tenant.  The landlord had only done a cursory background check on the manager, and a better pre-hire investigation would have revealed the manager’s history of violent crime.

Similarly, if employees start to exhibit behaviors suggesting that they might harm others, their employers can be held liable for failing to protect those who are eventually harmed.  The Minnesota Supreme Court recognized this concept in the case of Yunker v. Honeywell, where an employee murdered a co-worker after a number of post-hire incidents suggested that the employee had violent propensities.

Now imagine again that video or indictment on your desk. Or imagine that your background check has revealed some other off-duty misconduct that you wished you never knew about. Know that the NFL’s model simply does not apply in the real world. Employers facing these situations should think carefully and not automatically leap to the conclusion that the employee should suffer some work-related consequence in addition to whatever sanction s/he got elsewhere.

For more information about this article, please contact me at alexandriamnlaw.com or  taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.

Copyright 2014 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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