Human Resources

HR Case Illustrates the Need for Proper Training

By Kate McGovern Tornone

In yesterday’s Advisor, BLR® editor Kate McGovern Tornone laid out the facts of a case where an HR manager wasn’t careful in communication. Today Tornone reveals the outcome of the case—and why it could’ve been prevented with good HR training.

Appeals Court Weighs In

On appeal, the 11th Circuit reversed, first finding that Diamond had provided enough evidence to continue with her interference claim.

The clearest example, the court said, was the HR manager’s e-mail. The employer’s request for travel receipts also could be evidence of interference, it said, noting that the requirement appeared to be ad hoc. This could support an inference that the employer, knowing it could not deny Diamond’s leave requests outright, sought to discourage her from taking FMLA leave by making approval of her leave requests more difficult, the 11th Circuit said.

The appeals court also disagreed with the lower court that Diamond failed to present evidence showing that she was harmed by the interference. She testified that she took less time off after receiving the e-mail and also tried to spread the leaves out, resulting in more travel expenses than if she had taken longer blocks of leave, the court said.

The 11th Circuit reached the same conclusion with respect to Diamond’s retaliation claim. First, she showed that her termination happened shortly after her leave. The evidence also shows that she began having difficulty getting leave approved only once a new HR manager was in place, the court noted. And when that HR manager complained about her absences, she was fired just days later.

To dispute that evidence, the employer pointed to Diamond’s performance deficiencies, listed in her termination notice. But many of those problems were tied to her protected leave, the court said. And those that weren’t related to the leave were minor infractions. “A reasonable jury could conclude that Hospice’s proffered reasons were not what actually [motivated] its conduct and that Diamond was discriminated against for having exercised her FMLA rights,” the court said, remanding both claims.

Employer Takeaway

The FMLA prohibits employers from interfering with workers’ leave rights. “Interference” can take several different forms, from denying leave to manipulating worksite assignments to ensure that sites remain below the law’s 50-employee eligibility threshold, according to the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL).

But the law also makes clear that interference can be an attempt to directly or indirectly “intimidate, threaten, or coerce” an employee to prevent him or her from exercising FMLA rights. This includes promising to confer a benefit (such as appointment, promotion, or compensation), or threatening to take reprisal (such as deprivation of those benefits), according to the statute.

One of the best ways to avoid such violations is regular training, especially for front-line managers, the DOL says in its FMLA guidance. “Providing FMLA training regularly helps to make sure those responsible for implementing the FMLA are up-to-date on the requirements of the law and the employer’s policy, procedures and practices.”