Now I Have to Allow Insubordination and Verbal Abuse Too?

09 June 2014 Labor & Employment Law Perspectives Blog

Several weeks ago, in both a tongue-in-cheek and concerned fashioned, we wrote about a federal court decision that concluded an employer had to tolerate an employee’s admitted theft as a reasonable accommodation for her disability. As part of that commentary, we observed that government agencies such as the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission are clearly pushing to expand employee and restrict what seem to some as logical reasons for terminating employees – such as wanting to stem employee theft. We have also reported that the Obama-era National Labor Relations Board has not been shy about overturning its own precedents and taking controversial measures to increase employee protections. Two more recent rulings from the Board continue this trend, with one suggesting employees now have protections allowing them to engage in insubordination and mistreatment of customers.

In the first decision, the Board found that an employer unlawfully terminated an employee who, during a meeting with the company owner, launched into a profanity-laced insulting tirade, and only after the employee said such things did the owner decide to terminate his employment. After an appeal to a federal appellate court, the Board reconfirmed its earlier ruling that though there was no dispute that the employee’s conduct was menacing and threatening, the employee had protections against termination because he had previously complained to other employees about wages. And though it is concerning an employer would have to continue employing someone who has cursed out the boss, at least in that case the Board followed long-existing precedent and arguably did not go way out of its way to rule in favor of the employee.

More concerning is a recent decision by a Board administrative law judge who asserted that an employer could not lawfully maintain policies prohibiting insubordination and rude treatment of customers. Though administrative law judge decisions do not establish Board precedent, the decision is nonetheless noteworthy both for its somewhat amusing underlying facts (involving allegations of an employee being fired for complaining about a rigged bikini contest) and the fact that the employee used her discharge claim as a way to attack unrelated employer policies in the Employee Handbook. In response, the administrative law judge accepted the employee’s invitation and attacked the employer’s policies against insubordination and mistreatment of customers as being too broad. Regardless of how broad that language may or may not have been, the rationale behind the ruling unavoidably raises the specter than an employer would have to permit some degree of insubordinate conduct or employee mistreatment of customers. Not exactly a comforting thought for employers.

In light of these recent developments and the fact that a change in direction does not appear in the offing, employers can be forgiven feeling frustration as to how they can reasonably manage their workforce and business if they have to permit employees to steal, curse out their bosses, be rude to customers, and refuse to follow directions. Perhaps we can hope for some common-sense rounding out to these current decisions thinly veiling an agenda seeking to expand employee protections at the expense of what many employers may see as legitimate business interests. Regardless of whether that happens, what employers can certainly expect for now is that if they feel they are operating on a tilted playing field, they will be well served to think through carefully policy and discipline decisions and work closely with their trusted legal advisors to remain abreast of policy issues and evaluate disciplinary decisions.

This blog is made available by Foley & Lardner LLP (“Foley” or “the Firm”) for informational purposes only. It is not meant to convey the Firm’s legal position on behalf of any client, nor is it intended to convey specific legal advice. Any opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect the views of Foley & Lardner LLP, its partners, or its clients. Accordingly, do not act upon this information without seeking counsel from a licensed attorney. This blog is not intended to create, and receipt of it does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship. Communicating with Foley through this website by email, blog post, or otherwise, does not create an attorney-client relationship for any legal matter. Therefore, any communication or material you transmit to Foley through this blog, whether by email, blog post or any other manner, will not be treated as confidential or proprietary. The information on this blog is published “AS IS” and is not guaranteed to be complete, accurate, and or up-to-date. Foley makes no representations or warranties of any kind, express or implied, as to the operation or content of the site. Foley expressly disclaims all other guarantees, warranties, conditions and representations of any kind, either express or implied, whether arising under any statute, law, commercial use or otherwise, including implied warranties of merchantability, fitness for a particular purpose, title and non-infringement. In no event shall Foley or any of its partners, officers, employees, agents or affiliates be liable, directly or indirectly, under any theory of law (contract, tort, negligence or otherwise), to you or anyone else, for any claims, losses or damages, direct, indirect special, incidental, punitive or consequential, resulting from or occasioned by the creation, use of or reliance on this site (including information and other content) or any third party websites or the information, resources or material accessed through any such websites. In some jurisdictions, the contents of this blog may be considered Attorney Advertising. If applicable, please note that prior results do not guarantee a similar outcome. Photographs are for dramatization purposes only and may include models. Likenesses do not necessarily imply current client, partnership or employee status.