Court Affirms Termination of HR Manager Who Solicited Employee to Sue Their Employer

Kia Motors has advertised with the slogan “The power to surprise.”  One of their Human Resources Managers took this saying to heart in choosing a very surprising method of expressing her displeasure with her employer.  It did not work out so well for her.

Manager Feels Driven to Extremes

Andrea Gogel worked for Kia Motors Manufacturing Georgia, Inc., a subsidiary of Kia Motors in Korea. Gogel managed all Human Resources functions relating to current employees while her counterpart, Robert Tyler, was in charge of all recruitment, hiring and other pre-employment matters.

At one point, Tyler was awarded a promotion to Head of Department (HOD) overseeing the entire Human Resources function.  Gogel was disappointed in this decision, believing that she should have received the position instead.  She complained about the choice and about “antiquated views” of working women on the part of the Korean corporate executives.

After his promotion, Tyler was asked to investigate and report on increasing complaints by American managers that they were not given sufficient decision-making authority. After Tyler submitted the report, which included significant contributions from Gogel, Senior Vice President Randy Jackson asked to meet with Gogol to discuss her view further. Gogel expressed concern about speaking with Jackson and asked instead to meet with an independent investigator.  The parties greatly dispute the chain of ensuing events but it appears that there was little or no follow-up to Tyler’s report.

Co-worker is Steered in the Wrong Direction

Subsequently, Gogel filed a charge with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) alleging sex and national origin discrimination regarding Tyler’s promotion to HOD.  Interestingly, Tyler also filed a discrimination charge alleging national origin discrimination and retaliation (the decision did not identify the factual allegations underlying Tyler’s charge).

Given the sensitive nature of their jobs and their unique access to other employees and company records, the company asked Gogel and Tyler to sign agreements promising not to exploit or misuse their positions.  Gogel specifically agreed not to “solicit or influence” employees to bring claims against the company or to make any statements that disparaged Kia.

Thereafter, the company learned that a third employee, Diana Ledbetter, had filed a discrimination charge alleging race, sex and national origin discrimination, and that she was being represented by the same attorney representing Gogel and Tyler.  They further learned from co-workers that Gogel and Tyler had been having lengthy meetings with Ledbetter, and that Ledbetter herself had told others that she, Gogel and Tyler would be suing the company.

Following investigation, the company concluded that Gogel had helped solicit Ledbetter to file her charge.  They therefore terminated her for failing to notify them of Ledbetter’s concerns, failing to direct Ledbetter toward internal complaint resolution mechanisms, breaching her agreement with the company and generally acting in a manner that caused loss of confidence in her loyalty to the company.

Court Sets Up Roadblock

Gogel sued in Federal court claiming that her termination violated Title VII’s “opposition clause”, which protects employees from retaliation for opposing discriminatory practices. However, the Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal of her case on the grounds that oppositional conduct is not protected if the employee’s method of “so interferes with the performance of her job that it renders her ineffective in the position for which she is employed.”

The Court explained that Gogel had frequently opposed various company practices in pursuit of her Human Resources responsibilities and had never been treated adversely. In this instance, however, she elected to act in conflict with core objectives of her position – promoting internal resolution of conflict and protecting the company from litigation – by recruiting an employee to sue the company. As a result of this decision, the company could no longer trust her to do her job.

The Court ruled therefore that opposition to discriminatory practices is only protected when the opposition is expressed in a reasonable way.

Bottom Line

It is not unusual for employees to tell HR that they are considering suing the employer.  It is unusual, however, for HR to encourage this, find them a lawyer and cheer them on.  Doing so turned out not to be a road map to success for this particular practitioner.