Understanding the Zone in the Workplace

May 11, 2016 |

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-Attorney Timothy G. Kenneally

Retaliation protection in the workplace is defined by the “zone of interests” standard. If an employee falls within the interests sought to be protected under the law (Title VII) that employee is shielded against retaliatory adverse employment action.

A recent decision by the Massachusetts Commission Against Discrimination (the “Commission”) in Schillace v. Enos Home Energy Therapy illustrates how the zone works. Schillace charge Enos with terminating her employment because her fiancé, who had also worked for Enos, had previously charged the company with retaliation.  The Commission concluded that the fiancé relationship was “a close personal association” for Schillace, and therefore she was protected against any adverse employment action motived by or related to her fiancé’s claim.  The Commission concluded that Schillace was entitled to back pay and damages for emotional distress due to the wrongful termination of her employment. In other words, she was in the zone of protection.

How should employers properly define the zone and react to it?  For starters, employers must acknowledge that the focus on a zone of interests, in practice, creates a unique type of protection for each employee.  This personalized zone is defined by any and all of the employee’s known close personal associations with members of protected classes. Close personal associations have been defined to include blood relatives, relatives by marriage, adoptive relations, and of course, a fiancé.  However, we hesitate to suggest that a Court or the Commission will not define the group more broadly to include other persons closely tied to the employee.

Before taking adverse employment action, employers must consider all of the employee’s known close personal associations.  Do any of those persons fall within protected classes?  Can the adverse action be viewed as retaliation related to a person associated with the employee?  Only through a measured and careful analysis, can an employer minimize its risk of running afoul of the ZONE.

If you have any questions about the zone of interests, feel free to contact me at tim@foleylawpractice.com.

 

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