- A state agency employee in Wisconsin who investigated her supervisor's conduct and then unsuccessfully interviewed for his position did not experience illegal retaliation, according to the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals (Robertson v. State of Wisconsin Department of Health Services, No. 19-1179 (7th Cir. Feb. 7, 2020)).
- Vanessa Robertson launched an investigation into her boss, the bureau director, when another employee reported that he had said he would "pimp out" an employee to a different department. The director resigned in lieu of termination, and Robertson was one of three finalists who interviewed for his post. She was not selected and eventually claimed the new director treated her poorly due to her role in the investigation of the previous director.
- The 7th Circuit upheld a federal district court's summary judgment ruling in favor of the state. All three finalists had strong and unique qualifications for the bureau director job, and there was no bias involved in the non-selection of Robertson. Additionally, the poor treatment she alleged at the hands of the new director — including eye-rolling and non-material changes to her job — did not rise to the level of a hostile work environment.
The 7th Circuit noted that "snubbing" by supervisors and co-workers is not legally actionable: Title VII protects against discrimination, said the court, not "personal animosity or juvenile behavior." The U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) concurs, saying the conduct must create a work environment that would be "intimidating, hostile, or offensive to reasonable people."
A few disagreeable incidents over the span of several years was recently deemed insufficient to support an employee's claims of hostile work environment, retaliation, disparate treatment and constructive discharge. But a different court found that a supervisor's use of racial slurs a few times against an employee was enough to preclude summary judgment for the employer.
Even when comments or conduct are insufficient to rise to the level of creating a legally actionable hostile work environment, they can still taint the workplace and create stress and preventable turnover. In order to foster a positive and respectful atmosphere, experts say, employers should impose consequences for bad behavior, investigate all complaints of bullying, and train all levels of the workforce.