Wacky Employee Claims: What Employers Can Learn From Outlandish Situations
Think you’ve heard every cautionary workplace tale? Believe it or not, you probably haven’t – the real question is, how prepared are you to handle wildly unusual complaints, extreme accommodation requests, and highly awkward situations?
We compiled some of the most interesting recent, real-life scenarios below. Sometimes, the employer acted reasonably, and in other situations, failed miserably. But each case serves as a reminder to employers: When making employment decisions, proceed with caution and advice from counsel.
#4. Religious Discrimination Reeks
The Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) filed suit against a New York company that forced employees to participate in a religion called “Onionhead.” Employees were made to wear Onionhead buttons, dim the lights, join prayer groups and participate in other Onionhead-related activities. Employee resistance was futile, and in three cases led to humiliating treatment and eventual termination.
Employers: Avoid imposing your religious (or non-religious) beliefs on your employees.
#3. Displeasing Prosthetics
An employee who worked for a snack food maker in Pennsylvania was considering gender reassignment surgery. She told a few coworkers about her potential surgery, and also confided that she was wearing a prosthetic penis at work to help her make a decision. The prosthetic was not visible, but one of her coworkers informed management, and the employee was soon fired.
The employee filed a federal civil rights complaint seeking back pay, compensation for suffering and humiliation, and punitive damages. She claimed a male coworker who underwent hormone treatments and cross-dressed was treated more fairly, and her complaint alleged disparate and discriminatory treatment for being a female, and for being a female who identified as male.
Employers: The EEOC has determined that discrimination based on gender identity is sex discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. California also makes it unlawful to discriminate based on gender identity or expression, under the Fair Employment and Housing Act.
#2. Quid Pro Quo Grooming
An employee claimed that her supervisor made several sexual advances to her, and became “biased and angry” when the employee rebuffed those advances. She complained to her supervisor’s supervisor– but during this period the employee herself was written up several times for tardiness and inappropriate dress. Management decided to implement a work performance improvement plan for the employee, and the employee claimed no further discussions regarding her supervisor’s inappropriate behavior took place with upper management.
Then this happened: The supervisor called the employee to his office – the employee assumed it was to have a performance evaluation discussion. However, the supervisor asked the employee to extract an ingrown hair from his chin. The employee refused. The supervisor then informed the employee that he could have her fired.
Shortly after this incident, the supervisor was instructed to terminate the employee, citing work performance issues observed by members of management.
The employee alleged age discrimination and sexual harassment in her claim brought to a federal court. The district court found that the ingrown hair request was not severe enough to be considered sexual harassment, though an Appellate court disagreed. The case was remanded back to district court.
Employers: Asking employees to perform personal grooming tasks is not appropriate; termination decisions should be based on legitimate business reasons and thoroughly documented.
#1. Popping Positive for GINA Violations
This employer may have flushed over $2M down the sewer.
When management at a grocer’s warehouse discovered that someone was defecating in the aisles and on top of canned goods, they immediately became concerned of potential health risks and took drastic action. The company ordered certain employees to submit to cheek swabs so they could identify the DNA of what a district court in Georgia called “The Devious Defecator.”
Two employees submitted to the DNA test and were found to not have matching DNA of the defecator.
The employees later filed suit for violations of GINA, the Genetic Information Nondiscrimination Act. The employer contended the cheek swab testing did not provide medical information about the employees, and filed a motion for summary judgment. After losing on summary judgment, a jury awarded the plaintiffs $2.25M ($1.75M in punitive damages).
Employers: GINA clearly states it is “illegal for an employer to request, require, or purchase genetic information” of an employee, even if obtained for arguably reasonable business reasons.
What are the lessons learned from the bizarre claims made above? First, employers must be aware of the myriad laws governing the workplace. But more importantly, when these odd situations do come up, know to spot the issue, take proper action, and consult counsel with any questions. You can read more strange employee situations in a previous blog: Wacky Employee Claims.