Thursday, June 28, 2012

Abandoning job because of harassment does not support retaliation claim, says the 6th Circuit

Last week, I discussed the 6th Circuit’s most recent pronouncement on same-sex harassment. I noted that while some would argue the Court’s dismissal of the harassment claim is evidence of the need for law against workplace bullying, in reality the Court’s dismissal of the retaliation claim was the more troubling aspect of the opinion. What did I mean?

Recall that in Wasek v. Arrow Energy Services [pdf], when Harold Wasek complained that his male co-worker, Paul Ottobre, was harassing him, his superiors first told him not to “make waves [by] whining,” and later told him he should just “kick [Ottobre’s] ass,” and that they should “duke it out” to “get it out of [their] systems.” In response to this supervisor’s advice, Wasek went AWOL from his Pennsylvania job site. When Wasek later pursued the issues with HR, the regional supervisor told him that it’s “the way the oil field is” and that if Wasek couldn’t handle it he “should find another line of work.” Ultimately, Arrow banned Wasek from working in Pennsylvania and reassigned him to a job site in Michigan. He ultimately quit to work for a different employer.

The Court concluded that Wasek going AWOL, and not his complaints about harassment, caused his job-site transfer:

Wasek’s claim fails, however, because he has not demonstrated a causal connection between his protected activity—the complaints—and Arrow Energy’s adverse employment action—the Pennsylvania ban….

Leaving the work site could be protected activity if leaving itself were a “complaint” about sexual harassment. But this would require a fact-intensive inquiry into whether or not leaving the work site was reasonable under the circumstances.

Lately, we've seen more than one example of employers who avoided liability despite encapsulating some pretty poor HR practices. This case provides another textbook case of how not to respond to an employee complaint. Yes, you can hope to avoid liability based on a legal argument that the employee was not engaging in protected activity because the underlying misconduct was not illegal. That hope, however, misses the point. Anyone who has responsibility for responding to harassment complaints should be troubled by a decision that justifies an excuse such as “that’s the way the oil field is,” and suggests that the complaining employee tough it out or find another job. Employers need to take all complaints seriously, not just those that the employer thinks will cause it legal problems down the road.