Can the Department of Human Resources Be Sued?
It not unusual for employees to sue over human-resources concerns, such as discrimination, sexual harassment and unfair firings. A lawsuit can include both your business and a specific employee, such as the HR supervisor, or it can name everyone in the department. This can play out in numerous ways for your company and the individuals involved.
An employee may sue HR because an HR staffer was involved in whatever went down -- for example, firing or discriminating against pregnant employees based on managers' orders. It may be that the employee did something wrong, such as blabbing confidential information. In some cases, it's a legal tactic: Adding the number of targets increases the chance of collecting from the lawsuit. That can backfire, though, as juries are more likely to be sympathetic to an individual than a business.
Even if your company doesn't tolerate discrimination, sexual harassment or office bullying, that doesn't immunize you against HR-related lawsuits. If your firm fires an employee without a clear reason or after giving good performance reviews, she may decide the firing is fishy. If she files a complaint and doesn't get prompt results, that may convince her you're deep-sixing the problem. Some companies have found that even though they have good policies on paper, the HR team isn't following them in practice.
A lawsuit against an HR employee or employees has to include three essential elements or the courts will throw it out. The employee has to show that the HR staffers he's suing were under a legal duty and failed to live up to it. For example, HR employees can't divulge confidential information; if they fail that duty, they may be held liable. The third element is that the employee has to suffer a loss because of the department's conduct, such as losing the job, missing a promotion or public humiliation because of illegal disclosures.
Court costs and attorney fees are often steep enough to break an individual defendant. Even if the HR employee was carrying out company policy, that doesn't obligate your business to provide him with an attorney. While many businesses do provide legal counsel, it's not mandatory. Your decision may depend on whether the staffer was acting according to company policy or the lawsuit resulted from a bad or discriminatory decision that was his alone.