When it comes to protecting employees from bullying, an employer’s responsibility extends beyond the physical workplace.
That’s the costly lesson one organization learned in Espinoza v. County of Orange.
The back story: Ralph Espinoza, an employee who worked as a correctional officer at juvenile detention, was born with a deformed right hand, which he was very self-conscious about. Because of his insecurity, Espinoza often kept his hand in his pocket.
His co-workers began posting messages that ridiculed him on a blog set up by another corrections officer.
The blog included derogatory messages like:
- I will give anyone 100 bucks if you get a picture of the claw (a reference to Espinoza’s deformed hand). Just take your hand out of your pocket already!!!, and
- Espinoza is useless even with his good hand. Can we have staff that at least have two hands.
When upper management found out about the blog, they investigated and discovered that “many employees” were accessing the blog; some were using generic passwords, and some were using identifiable names.
In response, management sent an email to all workers, which stated the blog postings violated the organization’s policy and blocked access to the site through generic password.
However, employees could still access the blog using specific log-in names. Plus, despite the fact that management knew the names of several of the blog authors and that HR had been notified of the harassing comments and their authors’ identities, none of the individuals were ever held accountable.
Even after Espinoza’s continued complaints to supervisors, none of the employees who were involved in the blog postings were ever interviewed by management or HR.
So Espinoza sued for harassment and discrimination based on his disability, claiming the blog postings caused insomnia and depression, and his doctor even testified that Espinoza couldn’t work because of the hostile work environment.
‘Outside of the workplace’
In court, the company argued that it couldn’t be held liable for harassment Espinoza suffered because it occurred outside of the workplace.
But in the decision, the judge said something that all employers should read carefully.
The judge wrote, “employers do not have a duty to monitor private communications of their employees,” but they do have “a duty to take effective measures to stop co-employee harassment when the employer knows or has reason to know that such (actions are) taking place … in settings related to the workplace.”
Based on that, the court said, the company didn’t do enough to protect Espinoza.
Result: The company ended up on the hook for $820,000 in damages, with a half million of that alone going to Espinoza for mental distress.