HR Official Loses Title VII Protections Due to Her Unreasonable Oppositional Conduct
Although Title VII protects those who oppose discrimination under that law, such opposition must be reasonable, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit stated in finding an HR official’s solicitation of another employee to sue the company to be unreasonable.
In Gogel v. Kia Motors Manufacturing of Georgia, Inc., following a complicated series of workplace complaints by a female employee and a high level female HR official, the HR official and her white male counterpart filed a lengthy report regarding American management’s concerns with the Korean parent company’s oversight. Both HR officials subsequently filed charges of discrimination with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Given the sensitivity of the HR officials’ positions and their access to the entire workforce, the head of HR and the General Counsel required both officials to sign an agreement to prevent misuse of their positions in their interactions with employees. The agreement also prohibited them from soliciting or influencing employees to bring claims against the company, or to malign the company. The company then discovered that both, in fact, were soliciting another employee to sue the company, with the female HR official as the ringleader. She was terminated and then sued, alleging among other things that her termination violated Title VII, because her encouragement of another employee to sue the company was protected oppositional conduct.
Relying upon long-standing precedent, the Eleventh Circuit rejected the female HR official’s claim. The Eleventh Circuit stated that “when the means by which an employee expresses her opposition so interferes with the performance of her job duties that it renders her ineffective in the position for which she was employed, her oppositional conduct is not protected under Title VII’s oppositional clause.” In this case, the Eleventh Circuit found that soliciting an employee to sue the company so conflicted with the HR official’s duties to ensure a positive work environment and avoid litigation as to render her ineffective in her position. Accordingly, her oppositional conduct was unreasonable and unprotected by Title VII.