Managing the Legal Way: 4 Lessons from the Courts

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Managing the legal way: 4 lessons from the courts

These four court cases exemplify core concepts—and traps to watch out for—in employment law.

I don't have to tell you about the treacherous minefield HR departments face these days — rapidly changing laws and regulations, increased lawsuits, fines and personal liability for HR managers, plus the requirement that you serve as the company expert on hundreds of sensitive human resources policies. It used to be you needed an extensive library of loose-leaf references and newsletters to stay current — today many HR departments maintain expensive subscriptions to a handful of digital databases.

But here's good news: HR Prime — a single, comprehensive, online repository of HR laws, policies, training resources, templates and answers to high-stakes HR questions — helps you resolve even the thorniest HR problems likely to confront you and your team.


Avoid comments or questions about employee doctor visits

The case: After Tanya hurt her arm in a car accident, she began taking time off for medical appointments. Her boss told her she was "jeopardizing her job by taking off," and he asked if the doctor visits were "really necessary." Tanya's absences were covered under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA).

Soon after, she was terminated. The company said it was part of a layoff, but Tanya sued, saying she was fired for taking FMLA leave. The court agreed, citing the supervisor's comments as evidence of discrimination. (Jacobs v. York Union Rescue Mission)

Lesson for Managers: Avoid making negative comments when employees take time off for medical treatments. Remember, FMLA leave is an entitlement for eligible employees, and time off for medical treatments could be required as a "reasonable accommodation" under disability discrimination law.


Disciplining? Focus on employee actions, not your feelings

The case: Andrew earned good reviews for his work, but low marks for getting along with others. The company fired Andrew, saying he was a threat to others after he got involved in an incident with a co-worker. He sued, arguing that the real reason was that he had a disability.

In court, Andrew's manager couldn't point to any threatening words or actions by Andrew. He only said that the "look" on Andrew's face was scary and that "his eyes narrowed" when he got mad, which made the manager feel threatened.

Such subjective assessments weren't enough, the court said, and sent Andrew's case to a jury trial. (Berkowitz v. Oppenheimer)

Lesson for Managers: Judges don't expect you to put up with potentially dangerous employees. But it's important to document the employees' actual actions, comments and behavior, not just subjective "feelings" you got when observing him. Otherwise, it could look like discrimination.

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Never stereotype a job assignment based on gender

The case: Roger, a registered nurse at a hospital, was supervised by a woman. One day, the boss asked Roger to switch assignments with a female nurse so he wouldn't be part of an all-male nursing team. The female manager said she "didn't like the idea" of two male nurses working together. She didn't give a reason why.

Roger refused the assignment, believing the request was based on sexist stereotypes that men are less nurturing. Soon after, Roger was fired for a rules infraction. He sued, claiming sex discrimination. He won at trial. (Lianoz v. Hospice of Humboldt)

Lesson for Managers: Assigning tasks based on the employee's gender can easily turn into a sex discrimination lawsuit. Don't do it. Nor should anyone in management make comments that could be interpreted as sexist or as assumptions that certain roles are best assigned to either men or women. A person's gender is simply irrelevant in the workplace except in very limited circumstances.


Don't encourage or allow employees to work off-the-clock

The case: A company had written policies that said employees were not allowed to work overtime without first getting manager approval. But several employees said their managers had separate "unwritten rules" that required employees to place calls and make sales visits outside their normal working hours—and without pay.

Those employees banded together and filed a class-action lawsuit under the federal Fair Labor Standards Act, saying they were due thousands in overtime pay. The court said the employees had enough evidence to take their case to trial. (Lindsay v. Clear Wireless)

Lesson for Managers: Federal law says "time spent doing work not requested by the employer, but still allowed, is generally considered hours worked" and must be paid. Managers must be vigilant in telling hourly employees to leave at the end of their shifts or making sure they're relieved of duties during lunch and rest breaks.

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