Sabre Rattled – Y’All Come Back Now

February 11, 2010 - by: Doug Hall 6 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $2,500 for Meredith’s workers’ comp claim (those paper cuts can sting!) and more grist for the mill for potential future claims.

Tonight’s episode has the Scranton office continuing to deal with Dunder Mifflin’s acquisition by Sabre International. This time, it is the arrival of Sabre’s colorful president, Jo Bennett, and her two rather large dogs. Much of the episode focuses on the duel between Michael and Jim, as Mrs. (not Ms.) Bennett decides there is no reason to have co-Regional Managers at the branch (which shows already that she is more astute than Dunder Mifflin’s prior management). What starts as a battle to retain the manager’s role ends up being a contest to return to sales, as they realize they can do much better financially under Sabre’s policies as a salesman. At the end of the day, Michael ends up back in the manager’s role while Jim ends up where he belongs, in sales, doing battle with Dwight.

Although the contest between Michael and Jim doesn’t involve potential liability to the company, it points out the issues that can arise when rank-and-file employees earn more than their managers, including a disincentive for the best employees to move into managerial roles. And Dwight and Ryan could be exposing themselves, if not the company, to possible claims arising out of their conversation with Nick the IT guy — Dwight’s false potentially defamatory statement that Jim is under criminal investigation for “molesting people via the Internet” and Ryan’s threat of physical violence if Nick doesn’t turn over Jim’s computer password.

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Classic Rewind

January 22, 2010 - by: Chris Butler 6 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: In the aggregate, $100 million; most of which is punitive damages

OK, so tonight’s episode – The Banker –- didn’t really bring us much new material, but it indeed highlighted five years of near-catastrophic employee-relations failures. As Dunder Mifflin verges on economic collapse, a potential investor dispatches its self-proclaimed “fact-checker” to conduct a due-diligence assessment of the company’s “H.R. liabilities.” While interviewing HR representative Toby Flenderson, the fact-checker poses a series of provocative questions that invoke Toby’s vivid recollection of why he so dearly hates his job. In essence, we rewind the tape a few years. Let’s take a look:

  • Racial/national origin harassment/discrimination: Michael Scott mocking Kelly Kapoor’s Indian heritage.
  • Inappropriate and/or sexually-suggestive language and innuendos: Michael’s skilled reliance on the phrase “that’s what she said” to transform seemingly innocuous comments into sexually charged double entendres; Michael’s lewd references to Stanley Hudson’s teenage daughter; Michael exposing himself to Pam; Meredith Palmer exposing herself to the entire office; and Michael kissing Phyllis Lapin to dissuade her from complaining to human resources about his sexually offensive language, and then immediately rewarding her graciousness with sexually offensive language.
  • Sexual harassment/sexual orientation harassment: Michael kissing the visibly-horrified Oscar  Martinez on the lips to illustrate his tolerance of same-sex relationships; again, Michael kissing Phyllis; and, yet again, Michael’s unbridled references to “that’s what she said.”
  • Age harassment/discrimination: Several mean-spirited references to Creed Bratton’s age and his “distinct old man smell.”
  • Workplace violence: Andy Bernard ramming his fist through the wall; Pam slapping Michael; Kelly slapping Michael; Jim Halpert slapping Dwight Schrute; Dwight punching Michael, and later pounding him in the face with a shoe; Phyllis hurling a wad of paper into Angela Martin’s face; and Oscar shoving Angela.
  • Potential workers’ compensation claims: Michael running down Meredith in the employee parking lot; Andy plunging from a transfer truck into an empty refrigerator box; and Michael ramming the warehouse forklift into a storage rack, causing a cascade of flying metal, boxes, and paper.
  • Health and safety violations: Dwight purposely igniting a trashcan paper fire to instigate an unscheduled fire “drill”; and, again, Michael ramming the warehouse forklift into the storage rack.
  • Property damage/waste of company resources: Michael and Dwight bouncing a watermelon from the office roof onto a parked car; several mutinous employees shoving paper, books, and supplies to the floor; an employee shattering a plate glass window with a toy-gun projectile; again, Michael overturning the storage rack; Jim disassembling Dwight’s desk and contents (classic) and enveloping them in holiday wrapping paper; and Jim encasing Dwight’s stapler in a Jell-O mold.
  • Invasion of privacy/HIPAA violations: Dwight demanding that each employee publicly identify his or her personal medical condition to determine its legitimacy.
  • Supervisor-subordinate romantic relationships/inappropriate public displays of affection: Dwight making out with Angela; Angela making out with Andy; Kelly making out with Ryan; Michael’s painfully inappropriate workplace relationship with his boss, Jan (and discussing his repeated vasectomies before the entire office); and Jim’s and Pam’s eternal office romance, despite Jim’s supervisory role (OK, we turn a blind eye to this because we really like them).
  • Hostile work environment/miscellaneous inappropriate and outrageous behavior: All of the above, and too many to mention.

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Acting Koi

October 30, 2009 - by: Chris Butler 4 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: As to Dunder Mifflin, $500,000 (for potential hostile work environment, race discrimination/harassment, and/or intentional/negligent infliction of emotional distress damages); as to Andy, $25,000 (for potential assault, battery, humiliation, and emotional distress damages); as to Michael, $300 (value of decapitated koi).

Eight seconds. That’s precisely how long Michael needed to both sexually and racially harass the multitudes. To set the stage, Michael emceed the Scranton branch’s office Halloween party, staffed by Scranton branch employees and attended by their friends and families, including numerous children (and it was principally for them). Unencumbered by restraint, Michael spared no opportunity to “gift” the audience with a sexually provocative costume (paying homage to Mr. Timberlake and S.N.L.). Aside from his perpetually poor judgment, Michael’s offensive attire alone could land Dunder Mifflin with a hostile work environment lawsuit, particularly given his supervisory role. When will he learn to be the example, instead of being made the example?

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Misery Loves Company; Plaintiffs Love Dunder Mifflin

March 06, 2009 - by: Troy Foster 2 COMMENTS

Litigation value: $ 100,000

On the Blood Drive episode of The Office, Michael took things to the next level, or at least got creative in finding new ways to do something actionable, by stopping work and throwing a Valentine’s Day mixer. Sure, in the past Michael has said crude things, turned a blind eye to inappropriate behavior, and engaged in dangerous office relationships, but I don’t think he’s ever gone out of his way to get others involved like he did this week.

Even though no one actually complained during the episode, there could have been many unintended victims of Michael’s forced mixing. Anyone at the office that day had a viable claim against the company, even if they weren’t specifically forced to mingle. We’ll call it $100,000 for now.

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A Really Hostile Environment

January 16, 2009 - by: Troy Foster 4 COMMENTS

Litigation value: $ 30,000

There is no question that Jim Halpert, acting manager at Dunder Mifflin Scranton while Michael Scott was away, did a terrible job of diffusing and/or preventing a fight on company property on “The Duel” episode of The Office. Fortunately, the fight between Dwight Schrute and Andy Bernard didn’t lead to any serious injury. Otherwise, we might be talking about more than $30,000 this week.

Both Dwight and Andy could make claims that the company should have intervened and stopped them from brawling. Realistically, neither of these dorks’ claims is going anywhere. No jury is giving Dwight’s big head and beet-stained teeth big money because Dunder Mifflin didn’t protect him from Andy’s 4 mph Prius attack. That said, companies can be held liable for fights between employees at work in some circumstances, so we’ll say $30,000 just to show that there’s something, although not much, to their claims.

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Office Romance Leads to Robbery

October 24, 2008 - by: Troy Foster 4 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: $0.

Shockingly, I don’t think Dunder Mifflin can be held liable for any conduct in the “Crime Aid” episode of The Office. That doesn’t mean I think it’s advisable for Michael Scott and Holly to be messing around at work, for Phyllis to auction off sexual favors (“hugs”), or for Dwight to point to his crotch and tell Phyllis that Angela would be “saying goodbye to this.” But it does mean that I don’t think the company can be held liable for any illegal conduct. Yet.

As refreshing as it is to see the HR department represented more positively by Holly than it was by Toby, you have to worry for Dunder Mifflin when Holly does things like sleep with Michael — on the third date,  no less. And forgetting to lock up the place after an at-work make-out session, leading to a robbery.

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Where’s the Beef?

October 10, 2008 - by: Troy Foster 2 COMMENTS

Litigation Value: Surprisingly, maybe $0

Maybe this is just a reflection on me and my days as an HR Director, but I didn’t see much that would really nail Dunder Mifflin this week. Sure, Meredith has been having an affair with a vendor to get discounts for the company. But it didn’t come out that management suggested, encouraged, or even knew about it. When they found out, Holly pressed on and investigated and found that Meredith really enjoys her steak. Now, Dunder Mifflin should have probably counseled Meredith against it, and maybe changed vendors; but termination would have been risky. So, good job. What am I saying?

When faced with the possibility of terminating Meredith, Michael’s initial reaction was “hell no, she’s family.” However, it seems that he came to the realization that he works in an office — and he’s going to have to make tough decisions about people that he’s developed close, personal relationships with at work. (OK, I sure hope that Michael stops coming to realizations and learning! Ugh!)

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Stay Tuned!

September 22, 2008 - by: Troy Foster 2 COMMENTS

The new season of The Office starts Thursday. The first episode is entitled “Weight Loss,” and the promo features Michael in some sort of fat suit. I can already see we’re going to have some issues.

On the bright side, Michael and the new HR gal Holly are apparently going to continue developing their friendly relationship. It’s about time that the good people in human resources get some love. Of course, Holly’s taste in men makes me question how good of an HR role model she can ever be, but that’s another issue altogether.

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Categories: Office Romance

Polishing Your HR Policies

September 04, 2008 - by: Troy Foster 0 COMMENTS

Labor Day has come and gone. Our summer vacations are over, and it’s almost time for things like the NFL (your company isn’t sponsoring a betting pool, is it?) and the fall TV season, including The Office.

In advance of the new season, now might be a good time to review your HR policies and procedures. Since I’m a lawyer and adviser for companies, I see outdated and incomplete company policies on a regular basis. Does your company have a policy about Internet usage? Are the FMLA procedures up to date? What about spud guns — do your policies cover them?

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Categories: Office Romance

Hunter Caught a Cougar

May 29, 2008 - by: Troy Foster 4 COMMENTS

LITIGATION VALUE:  $200,000 (should Hunter lose interest in Jan and sue); $30,000+ (in emotional distress for those who had to witness Jan’s “love dance”).

You know it’s a funny episode when you laugh out loud, even though you are all by yourself — and you’ve seen it before!  For the second time, “Dinner Party” does not disappoint.  Tonight’s episode of  The Office introduces us to yet another surreptitious hook-up:  Jan and her former assistant, Hunter — who has recorded a CD titled, “The Hunter.”  His song about “that night” could have been a harmless-enough love ballad, except that we see Jan enraptured by its sound when she plays the song for her guests.  She was having such a time of it that I was embarrassed for her (forgetting for a brief moment that this is just a show).  By all appearances, “The Hunter” caught himself a real cougar.

As we all know, office romances — especially between a supervisor and a subordinate — are very problematic and plant the seeds for sexual harassment claims when things sour, which they almost always do.  The employees generally claim that they felt compelled to continue in the relationship with the supervisor — or it would be their job on the line.  Here, Dunder Mifflin is lucky to have Hunter’s ode to Jan, which will be very useful in refuting any claim that Jan’s advances were unwanted — please!  But most of us can’t count on (nor do we want to listen to) that type of evidence.  Instead, we have to turn to policies and enforcement.  Crafting a thoughtful policy on employee dating should help us sleep a little sounder at night.  But the key to any policy is the proper enforcement behind it.  We definitely don’t want to create a policy that we’re not going to enforce or just enforce parts of; that just makes the policy empty and could create other disparate-impact claims.

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