When Ortho-McNeil told a woman to, essentially, stop mourning her daughter during working hours, it won its legal case, but may have lost in a wider sense.
Cecilia Ingraham worked for Ortho in New Jersey when her daughter died of acute lymphocytic cancer in May 2005, during her junior year in high school. Eighteen months later, co-workers approached HR with complaints about the “memorial” Ingraham had set up on her desk — a picture of her daughter and a pair of her ballet slippers. HR informed Ingraham’s manager, who called her into talk.
… where he said he’d received complaints about Ingraham’s memorial on her desk. He said her co-workers were being distracted by Ingraham’s constant talk about her daughter 18 months after her death.
The boss said the pictures needed to be removed and that Ingraham could “no longer speak of her daughter because she is dead.”
Ingraham asked if he was telling her to act as if her daughter didn’t exist. The boss said yes.
Ingraham left the building and didn’t come back. Soon after, she went to the doctor because of heart palpitations. She had an angioplasty, for which she took a short-term disability leave. She resigned from Ortho-McNeil, and sued the company in a New Jersey court for intentional infliction of emotional distress. The court dismissed the case, and the Court of Appeals upheld the decision.
Ortho and the manager conceded that the incident caused Ingraham distress and that the distress was severe. But they argued they hadn’t acted recklessly and that the manager’s behavior was not extreme or outrageous. The court ruled in their favor.
“There is no question that any reasonable employer should know that telling a grieving mother not to talk about her deceased daughter might cause emotional distress, but a severe reaction was not a risk that one should predict,” the court explained.
It observed that an “employer is not charged under tort law with a duty to avoid all emotional distress to employees, only such distress that is extreme, outrageous, and ‘utterly intolerable in a civilized community.’”
So: HR and the manager are faced with a situation that is awkward to say the least. On the one hand, no one wants to get in the face of someone who’s lost a child. On the other, Ingraham’s behavior was drawing complaints and impacting the workplace. The fact the company won its case in court may not matter to a number of employees outside the department, and we can guess how many would react.
It’s s a good example of a situation where HR might have played a more active role to deliver the same message as the manager, without resorting to saying things like don’t talk about your daughter, and act as if she didn’t exist.
As we certainly know, sometimes it’s all about delivery.