- An HR manager, believed by her employer to have encouraged another employee to file a discrimination complaint with the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), is protected by Title VII, a split 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals panel has ruled (Gogel v. Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc., No. 3:14-cv-00153 (11th Cir., Sept. 24, 2018)).
- Andrea Gogel was the manager of the team relations department at Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc. When an employee, Diana Ledbetter, came to her with a complaint, Gogel began an investigation but was later instructed to drop it, according to court documents. Gogel eventually filed her own EEOC complaint, alleging discrimination on the basis of gender and national origin. Ledbetter heard about Gogel's charge from other employees, and asked Gogel whether she had retained an attorney. Gogel replied that she hadn't, but that she had chosen one to meet with, and she passed along the attorney's name. The company eventually received three such EEOC charges, and realized that all three of the employees had retained the same law firm. Kia fired Gogel because "one could conclude that [she] encouraged or even solicited [Ms. Ledbetter's] filing of the charge" and that "[a]t the very least, there is an appearance of a conflict of interest."
- Gogel sued and a federal district court granted summary judgment for Kia, concluding that it fired her for failing to perform her job duties. On appeal, the 11th Circuit disagreed, reinstating her retaliation claim. The appeals court said that courts must balance an individual's rights with an employer's business needs. Prohibiting all opposition by human resource employees would be contrary to Title VII, the court said. The statute forbids retaliation against "any employee," no doubt including human resource employees, the court said.
Title VII emphasizes employers' voluntary compliance, and human resource employees play an important role in achieving and maintaining compliance, the court noted in the opinion. HR usually furthers the purpose of the statute and the need to protect people asserting their rights by following his or her employer's procedures, the court said.
But, there are times when an employer's internal procedures are not effective for certain classes of complaints or the complaints of particular people, the court continued. "A human resource employee who tries to resolve complaints internally but fails due to the inadequacy of her employer's procedures furthers the purpose of the statute and the need to protect individuals asserting their rights by going outside the employer's internal procedures," it said.
The fact pattern in Gogel speaks volumes about HR's need for executive buy-in. Without the C-suite's support, company cultures that accept discrimination or harassment can persist.
Instead, when HR has the support of executive leadership, the department can put into place procedures that encourage employees to report potential violations before accusations land a company in court. It takes strong support from leadership to convince employees to make use of internal reporting procedures.
"Employees must be comfortable reporting acts of misconduct and there must be a legitimate process to investigate claims and take corrective action," Jeffrey S. Ettenger, a partner at Schwartz Ettenger PLLC, wrote for HR Dive earlier this year. "Issues often can be resolved if there's an effective process in place ahead of time. Problems arise when the employer fails to recognize a claim and take appropriate action."