Paula Deen’s HR problem

documents1This summer’s career-wrecking case pitting employee vs. employer continues to keep the fire lit under a once popular name brand.  (You’ve likely heard of the case involving celebrity chef and restaurateur Paula Deen whose employee, Lisa Jackson, sued her for workplace discrimination.) At least in the court of public opinion, the main debate pits mercy against penance. Should Ms. Deen be forgiven for past indiscretions, or do her statements surrounding race reveal a larger moral failure?

This conversation could use refocusing, at least as far as employers should be concerned.  This article in the Chicago Tribune does a great job doing that.

Beyond arguing the merits of the case, or about how to avoid negative public relations, business owners should pay attention. One main issue of interest is the importance of drafting (and using) a human resources (HR) manual.

The HR manual helps protect your business by guiding the actions of your team when conflict arises. So where was the HR manual in Ms. Deen’s case? Apparently, her companies did not have one (see, Jackson v. Deen). “…A comprehensive human resource management policy applicable to the entire (group of companies)… was never adopted.”)

This fact alone strengthened the case against Ms. Deen.

Why? Because there was no formal process in place for employees to air their grievances, so the company now cannot prove how it normally operates under the alleged circumstances. Accusations of sexual harassment, disparate treatment based on a protected class, and hostile work environment—the basis of any employment discrimination claim—can be managed before becoming civil suits. Where an HR manual exists, the plaintiff has to show that she did everything the company asked of her and the company still failed to protect her. This may sound easy in theory but it can prove challenging in court. In fact, the Supreme Court recently increased the plaintiff’s burden when alleging discrimination.

Having an HR manual would have certainly helped Ms. Deen’s case. Working with an experienced business attorney who understands the value of planning to avoid conflict can mitigate your risk of ending up in a similar situation.

This publication and the information is intended to be general in nature. It is not legal advice, nor is it intended as such. You should consult with an attorney to determine how laws or decision impact your particular circumstances. 

About Chris McGrath

I’m a Carmel, Indiana business attorney providing business counsel, commercial litigation and mediation services based on over 20 years of experience. My firm is founded on a principle of supporting others’ advancement and achievement, and my core values are service, passion, faith & loyalty.Chris McGrath’s Google+ Profile