Does a company have a legal duty to enforce their written policies ?

I am an exempt employee in a large engineering corporation. Several months ago I contacted the HR dept. to ask about the company's "open door policy" and in particular, to verify that I would be protected from subsequent retaliation if I went to upper management to complain about my supervisor. The policy clearly states no retaliation will be tolerated. I told them my boss had made me responsible for 2 projects, and then refused to do anything when the people he assigned to work under me on both projects refused to contribute, making it impossible for me to meet my year-end goals, and consequently, I was worried I would be held responsible at the end of the year.
The HR person told me to go to my supervisor's boss, tell her, and if I thought later that my boss had retaliated against me, to contact HR at that time.
So I complained to my supervisor's boss, and it improved slightly for awhile. But then my supervisor started to harass me, and now 3 months later I feel he has created a hostile work environment in retaliation to my original complaints. So I met with my supervisor's boss a second time, and although I know I was presented convincing evidence of the retaliation, I am concerned that my supervisor will not be disciplined. At this point I have not formally contacted HR to claim retaliation occurred, but my quarterly review is next week, and my supervisor hasn't answered my emails, or spoken to me since I met with his boss earlier this week.

Presuming I can prove the retaliation occurred, do I have any legal recourse against the employer if they refuse to take appropriate disciplinary action against my supervisor ?

Are they legally bound to enforce their written HR policies, again, presuming they were presented with compelling evidence that retaliation actually occurred ?

Thanks, RP

1 answer  |  asked Oct 5, 2005 11:11 PM [EST]  |  applies to Arizona

Answers (1)

Francis Fanning
Company Policies aren't enforceable

When you work in the private sector, there is a presumption that your employment is terminable at the will of either you or the employer. No particular reason need be given. A corrolary to this concept is the principle that the company's policies are generally not part of an enforceable contract of employment. This was driven home by the Arizona legislature when it passed a law known as the "Employment Protection Act" in 1996. The company's failure to follow its own non-retaliation policy does not give you a legal cause of action to pursue. Certain kinds of complaints, such as complaints of unlawful discrimination or reports of unlawful conduct by or within the company, carry protections against retaliation. But generic complaints about work assignments, evaluations, goal setting and so on do not give rise to any legal protection against retaliation.
Another practical problem you should understand is the issue of what is "appropriate disciplinary action" to be taken against your supervisor. This decision is almost universally treated by the courts as a judgment that is within the discretion of the employer. There is no cause of action that would entitle you to obtain a court order mandating discipline against another employee. All remedies available to employees to correct unlawful retaliation involve recovery of lost earnings, reinstatement in an appropriate position, compensatory and punitive damages if warranted and injunctive relief to prevent future retaliation. I have never seen a case in which a court, as part of its grant of injunctive relief, mandated a particular disciplinary action against an employee.
You referred to your boss's retaliation as creating a "hostile work environment." While that may be an accurate description of the situation using the dictionary meaning of the term "hostile work environment," that term has a very specific legal meaning that simply does not fit the facts of your case. It refers to a form of unlawful harassment on account of race, color, sex, religion, national origin, age or disability. Generic hostility in the workplace is not unlawful, except when it is shown to be a form of retaliation for making complaints protected by the civil rights laws.

posted by Francis Fanning  |  Oct 6, 2005 12:38 PM [EST]

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