Group Health Insurance rulings, abusive work environments, San Jose, CA

Good & Bad News: Recent Rulings on Abusive Work Environments

searchIf you’ve ever dealt with litigation over workplace stress, you’ll be glad to know that the court doesn’t always side with the employees. Here are a couple of examples:

  • Some times referred to as the “Goldilocks decision”, the first case involves a plaintiff who requested an accommodation of a less stressful job. The transfer was allowed. The employee didn’t find the transfer to be interesting enough so asked for the accommodation of a transfer to a middle-of-the-road stress job. The court held that it was not reasonable to ask for a “just right amount of stress” job.
  • In November of last year, a Florida District Court decided that an employee cannot immunize herself or himself from stress and criticism in general. In this case the employee had requested an accommodation from a supervisor’s “hostile confrontations.” The court commented that the obligation to make a reasonable accommodation does not extend to providing an “aggravation-free” or “peaceful calm” environment.

Yet, it’s not all good news. California employers continue to deal with hostile environment and constructive discharge claims arising out of what is described as “bullying.”

The courts have made it clear that the manner of conducting discipline rises to the statutory definition of abusive conduct when the discipline is “harshly and constantly criticizing” of one individual. Public criticism of an employee often is seen as unprofessional and stress producing.

On the other hand, most states have uniformly found that stress claims arising out of disciplinary action or performance improvement plans are not covered under workers’ compensation law.

A Case in Point: An employer recently allowed an employee who was the vice president of finance to work at home. The VP’s job required her to be available for on the spot determinations regarding cash flow. The employee said that she suffered from an anxiety disability and requested an accommodation that she be given 15 minutes time before responding to telephone requests for cash flow estimates. It would seem that this would not be a reasonable accommodation because it would reduce the company’s ability to compete. Nonetheless the employee filed a lawsuit.

Although this seemed like a frivolous claim, the company narrowly avoided bankruptcy given the huge legal fees they were forced to pay.

Clearly these doctrines are in conflict. How are employers supposed to navigate these murky waters when legal authority is uncertain?

So, what is learned from this? It’s important to train managers to run to the HR department whenever the word “stress” crops up. Additionally, managers should be trained that discipline should always take place in private. In our society, yelling at an employee in front of coworkers is thought to be abusive.

Reduce risk by always engaging in an interactive process when an accommodation is requested. At these sessions, employees can learn what the rules require—and what they don’t­—in terms of reasonableness of requests. Make sure they know that a Goldilocks accommodation is not reasonable.

Finally, in job interviews and in job descriptions it should be clear that some jobs involve pressure. Employees should be aware that the ability to handle pressure and ambiguity is a requirement of the job.

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