- The transfer of a Lowe's worker, as well as valid investigations into his conduct, did not constitute illegal harassment or bias, the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled (Walls v. Lowe's Home Centers, LLC, No. 18-12055 (11th Cir. Oct. 16, 2019)).
- The employee, Robert Walls, was investigated a few times following complaints from other employees. Each time, the complaints were either deemed unfounded or Walls was given a written notice with no further discipline, noted the 11th Circuit. Additionally, the investigations occurred only once every one to two years. As for Walls' transfer to a different store, there was evidence that Walls wanted to be transferred and that his particular skill set would benefit the new location; he also received a slight pay increase.
- "Even assuming that Walls stated a prima facie claim for age or disability discrimination, Lowe’s met its burden to articulate legitimate and nondiscriminatory reasons for the adverse employment actions," said the 11th Circuit, and Walls failed to show that Lowe's stated reasons were false and a pretext for bias. Accordingly, the 11th Circuit upheld summary judgment for Lowe's.
When employers are confronted with allegations of bias, harassment or retaliation, the ability to show a legitimate business justification for the action in question is an excellent defense. Walmart, for example, recently defeated a former employee's age bias claim after demonstrating it had held multiple employees to the same standard.
Unequal discipline, performance requirements and the like, on the other hand, can create evidence of bias. HR may need to ensure policies are applied consistently, and that employees who violate those policies generally experience the same (or at least comparable) consequences.
But because legitimate exceptions do come up, documentation is important. In a guidance checklist, the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) provides the example of an employee who misses a deadline due to a supplier's failure to provide an essential part; that situation could warrant an exception from the standard discipline policy, but should be documented to demonstrate why the employee suffered no consequences. Without such documentation, the action may later look like favoritism.
Additionally, because HR can't be involved in every single interaction, manager training is vital to ensure compliance with applicable federal, state and local nondiscrimination laws. Managers should know when to escalate a situation to HR, and also that employees who raise complaints should never be retaliated against for a complaint.