Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Is digital “shunning” illegal retaliation?

Wired tells the story of an Australian tribunal, which ruled that an employee was illegally bullied at work, in part because a co-worker had unfriended her on Facebook.

Transfer this case to America, and assume that the employee is claiming retaliation based on the unfriending. Supposed Employee-A complains to HR that Employee-B is sexually harassing her, and, as soon as Employee-B finds out about the complaint, he unfriends Employee-A on Facebook. Does Employee-A have a claim for retaliation based on the unfriending?

The answer is likely no.

As a matter of law, an adverse action sufficient to support a claim for retaliation merely must be an action that would dissuade a reasonable worker from complaining about discrimination. Yet, the Supreme Court has stated that the adversity to support a claim for retaliation must be “material”, and that petty slights, minor annoyances, or a simple lack of good manners normally will not count:

We speak of material adversity because we believe it is important to separate significant from trivial harms. Title VII, we have said, does not set forth “a general civility code for the American workplace.” … An employee’s decision to report discriminatory behavior cannot immunize that employee from those petty slights or minor annoyances that often take place at work and that all employees experience…. It does so by prohibiting employer actions that are likely “to deter victims of discrimination from complaining to the EEOC,” the courts, and their employers…. And normally petty slights, minor annoyances, and simple lack of good manners will not create such deterrence….

A supervisor’s refusal to invite an employee to lunch is normally trivial, a nonactionable petty slight. But to retaliate by excluding an employee from a weekly training lunch that contributes significantly to the employee’s professional advancement might well deter a reasonable employee from complaining about discrimination.

Thus, an ostracism or shunning from a social network—one that serves no work-related purpose other than fostering congeniality among co-workers—likely should not support a claim for retaliation.

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