It’s December, which means that those of us holiday fanatics can decorate and watch Christmas movies to our hearts’ content without shame. Of course, I won’t tell anyone if you already had your tree up in November (like me) or if you never took it down from last year. One of my favorite Christmas movies is Elf, starring Will Ferrell. It is surprisingly packed with various employment law issues, such as employee substance abuse at work, sexual harassment, and workplace violence. In one of the more memorable scenes, Peter Dinklage’s character, Miles Finch, demonstrates how good intentions can still lead to a harassment complaint.
As background, Will Ferrell’s character, Buddy, has been raised as one of Santa’s elves and only recently learned that he is actually human. He has tracked down his biological father, who works for a children’s book publisher in New York City. Unaccustomed to the human world and innocent to its realities, Buddy has difficulty adjusting to life in the Big Apple and working in his father’s office.
Cue Peter Dinklage, who steals the scene wherever he goes. His character, Finch, is a best-selling children’s author ready get down to the business of pitching his latest book ideas. Finch, like Dinklage, is a busy, high-powered professional who also happens to have a form dwarfism. Tensions flare when Buddy barges into the room and innocently mistakes Finch for one of Santa’s elves. Unaware that Buddy was actually adopted and raised by Santa’s elves, Finch is understandably insulted and upset by Buddy’s elf comments. Finch tries to remain professional but quickly reaches his breaking point when Buddy calls him an “angry elf.” Finch then initiates his own trial by combat and attacks Buddy before storming out.
This is a great example of how even the most well-meaning employee can unknowingly engage in conduct giving rise to a harassment complaint. As the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) has explained, harassment is unwelcome conduct that is based on a protected status such as disability, race, color, religion, sex (including pregnancy), etc. It becomes unlawful where (1) enduring the offensive conduct becomes a condition of continued employment, or (2) the conduct is severe or pervasive enough to create a work environment that a reasonable person would consider intimidating, hostile, or abusive.
Had an employee complained about conduct like Buddy’s, the employer’s best practice would be to investigate immediately, interview potential witnesses, provide the accused employee with an opportunity to tell his/her side of the story, and take prompt remedial action reasonably designed to end any harassment. Other best practices include regular employee and supervisor training as well as having a strong harassment policy clearly stating that harassment will not be tolerated, the various avenues for reporting such issues, and that retaliation will not be tolerated. I’ll leave the workplace violence issue for another post.
Thankfully for Buddy, his tale ends on a cheerful note and teaches us that the best way to spread Christmas cheer is singing loud for all to hear. In the meantime, what’s your favorite color?