Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Jury verdict teaches that “open door” policies must still comply with EEO laws

There exists an inherent tension  between open-door and other self-reporting policies and the EEO laws.

Consider, for example, a recent $100,000+ jury verdict against a trucking company for disability discrimination. The company maintained a written “Open Door” policy, and an unwritten policy that prohibited any driver who self-reported alcohol abuse from ever returning to driving. The EEOC sued after an employee who availed himself of the Open Door policy to self-report an alcohol addiction was banned from any future driving for the company. Even though the company offered the driver a part-time dock position as an accommodation, the EEOC successfully argued that the employer failed to “make an individualized determination as to whether the driver could return to driving and provide a reasonable accommodation of leave to its drivers for them to obtain treatment,” and that “to maintain a blanket policy that any driver who self-reports alcohol abuse could never return to driving—with no individualized assessment to determine if the driver could safely be returned to driving—violates the ADA.”

Employees need to be able to engage in protected activity without any retribution or other negative consequences. In this case, the employer learned of a disability and failed to engage in the interactive process for a reasonable accommodation. In others, employers might retaliate against an employee who uses an open-door policy to complaint about discrimination or harassment.

Open-door policies are laudable. They foster the communication that is necessary between employees and management necessary for a healthy (and hopefully union free) work environment. With that openness, however, comes responsibility—the responsibility to learn information without retaliating. Employees need to train management so that they know what to do with protected information once they learn it, and how to act without violating any of our EEO laws. Without this training, employers are setting up their open-door policies and programs for a litigation fail.

The full press release about this jury verdict is available here.

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