Employee Relations, HR Management

The Importance of Listening To Your Employees

A strong employee recognition program is considered the cornerstone of a dynamic corporate culture and what is more fun than an office birthday party? Right? However, not every employee likes to be celebrated in the same way, and some who have anxiety disorders prefer not to be in the spotlight at all, as one Kentucky employer found out the hard way.

Kevin Berling asked his manager at Gravity Diagnostics not to celebrate his birthday like they do for all employees because he suffers from an anxiety disorder.  The office manager allegedly forgot the request and Kevin’s co-workers threw a surprise party for him at lunch, which then triggered a panic attack.  Kevin left his party abruptly and ate lunch alone in his car instead.

The following day, Kevin was asked to meet with supervisors who “challenged and criticized” him about his “somber” reaction to the party and accused him of “being a little girl” and “stealing his co-workers’ joy”.  This confrontation triggered a second panic attack, which his employer described as “violent.”  Kevin was fired shortly afterwards for violating the company work safety policy.  This led to a lawsuit alleging Gravity Diagnostics discriminated against him because of his disability and unfairly retaliated against him for asking that his request be accommodated.

Gravity Diagnostics argued that they did not know about Kevin’s anxiety disorder and that his behavior (a raised voice and clenched fists) was sufficiently dangerous to warrant his termination.  The jury disagreed and awarded Kevin $450,000, including $300,000 for emotional distress and $150,000 in lost wages.

This unusual case demonstrates that mental health disabilities are not always obvious and employee recognition should involve more than a “one size fits all” program.  Moreover, if an employee asks for something you can easily accommodate, you should likely accommodate it (and not throwing a party is way easier than actually throwing a party…) What should have transitioned to a thoughtfully signed card became a major – and costly – employee relations issue. 

Should you have concerns about how to handle a situation involving an employee who may be suffering from mental health issues, or if you’d like help enhancing your recognition program, feel free to contact us.  Everyone deserves a great place to work, and we like to help make that happen.

How Do You Celebrate Employee Birthday? Are you at risk? We can help.

Sign up to stay up to date

Stay informed about HR issues that matter to you with customized news delivered monthly to your inbox. Sign up now and we’ll share the most relevant developments in the world of HR.