STAY OUT OF COURT! Managers Can Be Held Liable in EEO Cases

By Dorothy Waldrup

The Federal Circuit Courts have uniformly held that the language of Title VII (race, sex, national origin and religious discrimination), ADA (Disability), and ADEA (age) do not grant a cause of action against managers and supervisors. The various statutes prohibit discrimination by “employers” and managers and supervisors are not “employers” under the statute.

However, most states and the District of Columbia have statutory or common-law causes of action for intentional infliction of emotional distress that can be used to sue individual managers or supervisors under certain circumstances.

The standards for maintaining such actions are high and difficult to prove. Generally the maliciousness of the intent and the level of outrage by society at large, over the conduct are the standards. Courts are careful to point out that these actions are not intended as a civility code of conduct in the workplace. While certain conduct, using profanity, yelling and screaming may be rude or boorish; it is not necessarily “intentional infliction of emotional distress”.

Even lawsuits by employees that will be ultimately defeated on legal or factual grounds can be emotionally and financially draining for managers and supervisors.

While most court actions against managers and supervisors fail, the impact on a career can be substantial. Words spoken in the heat of the moment, when retold in the courtroom can be embarrassing, humiliating and can mar an otherwise fine management reputation.

“Leadership by intimidation” is a failed management style not successful in the short or long term. Respect cultivates loyalty and motivates workers for long-term benefit to a work place organization.

A sampling of cases shows dysfunctional workplaces where tempers flair and rude and boorish behavior are the norm. In this setting, worker resentment spawns lawsuits.
These actions are usually not stand-alone actions but add on lawsuits against the employer company. Even if unsuccessful, they are emotionally and financially draining for managers and supervisors. The irony is that they are the easiest lawsuits to avoid when respect replaces recrimination.

AS A MANAGER, WHAT CAN YOU DO?

  • Difficult employment situations can cause frustration and anger.
  • Recognize your frustration and anger and deal with it constructively.
  • Do not let your anger seep out on employees or coworkers.
  • Check your conduct or attitude out with a trusted but honest colleague.
  • Get advice from your EEO officer.
  • Examine your part in the problem, what changes could you make in your own behavior.
  • Do not draw other employees into a dispute or attempt to make them your allies.
  • Act professionally with all employees.
  • Treat everyone with the same respect you want for yourself.

Dos And Don’ts For Handling Complaints

DO

    • Have the conversation in a private office
    • Ask for the facts. Do not assume anything.
    • Keep it confidential.
    • Involve your EEO officer, where appropriate, and as soon as possible.
    • Respect the privacy of the complainant.
    • Listen to the complaint and what the complainant wants from you as the manager.
    • Follow through.

DO NOT

    • Do not ask questions that assume that the complainant is lying, such as, “are you sure this happened?”
    • Do not break confidentiality.
    • Do not gossip about the complainant.
    • Do not ignore the complainant.
    • Do not reprimand anyone in a public place; reward in public, reprimand in private.
    • Do not treat the complainant as a troublemaker.
    • Do not punish the complainant.