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Manager Wins Retaliation Case After Refusing to Fire Associate Illegally 09-07-2005
- By Rita Risser, attorney at law

A regional sales manager for L'Oreal recently won her case in the California Supreme Court.

The manager had worked for 18 years for the company, had been named regional sales manager of the year, and was then promoted. Shortly after that, a new director was named over her. She and the director went together on a routine tour of one of the company's cosmetic counters.

After the tour, the director told the manager to fire a dark-skinned female sales associate because he did not find the woman to be attractive. He said he preferred fair-skinned blondes and directed the manager to "[g]et me somebody hot." On a return trip to the store, the director discovered the sales associate had not been fired. He complained to the manager that she was still there, then passed "a young attractive blonde girl, very sexy," on his way out, and told the manager, "God damn it, get me one that looks like that."

The manager asked the director for an adequate justification before she could terminate the associate. On several subsequent occasions, the director asked the manager whether the associate had been dismissed. On each occasion, the manager asked the director to provide adequate justification for dismissing the associate, who, it turned out, was among the top sellers in the western region. Ultimately, the manager refused to carry out the director's order and did not terminate the sales associate. She never complained to her immediate supervisor or to the human resources department that he was pressuring her, nor did she explicitly tell him that she believed his order was discriminatory.

Thereafter, the director began soliciting negative information about the manager from her subordinates. He and another director began looking for any excuse to reprimand her. They audited her travel expenses, screamed at her in front of her staff, and wrote a disciplinary memo demanding she respond in writing and come to a meeting within a few days. She wrote a response, came to the meeting, but they refused to read the response and questioned her in an aggressive manner.

The manager, who was by now being treated for nervous anxiety allegedly brought on by the situation at work, broke down in tears. Two days after the meeting, she departed on disability leave due to stress. She did not return, and L'Oreal replaced her four months later.

One of the important issues in this case was whether the manager could claim retaliation for refusing to fire the associate, even though she never said that she believed the order was discriminatory. The Supreme Court said she did not have to explicitly say, "this is discriminatory" or "this is illegal." The fact that she repeatedly asked for "adequate justification" was sufficient to establish that the employer knew that the refusal to comply with the order was based on the employee's reasonable belief that the order was discriminatory.

What you should do: This case could have been avoided if HR or top management had been paying better attention. How could the manager go from sales manager of the year to incompetent in less than a year? Whenever new management comes in and former top employees begin receiving negative evaluations, it may be because past management has been lax - or it may be that there is discrimination involved. Investigate! or get sued and lose!


Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.
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