If an employee claims he or she is suffering “emotional distress” on the job, a good employer takes the situation seriously since it can affect morale, productivity, and turnover.  But from the legal liability standpoint, the employer can take some solace in the  arrow definition and high bar to bringing an intentional infliction of emotional distress claim against an employer.

To bring such a claim, courts require proof of the following:

  • Extreme and outrageous conduct that was;
  • Intentional or reckless; and
  • Caused severe emotional distress.

That is a high burden for the employee to prove.  One noted Minnesota case characterized “extreme and outrageous” conduct as conduct which is “so atrocious that it passes the boundaries of decency and is utterly intolerable to the civilized community.”  Hubbard v. United Press Int’l., 330 N.W. 2d 428, 438-39 (Minn. 1983).  That is a rare occurrence and a very tough standard.

What does this narrow definition mean in practical terms?  Let’s say you are facing an upset employee with a credible claim that he or she has been treated in a hostile or negative manner by a supervisor or co-worker.  The employee is using the terms “emotional distress” and talking legal rights.  The conduct described seems unprofessional, harsh, or rude – but not “atrocious” or “utterly intolerable to the civilized community.”  In such a case, you do not need to go on legal “red alert.”  Rather, you can step back a bit from the situation with some confidence that you are not dealing with a legal cause of action and take measured, corrective action based upon good principles of human resource management rather than adopt immediate steps to defend against a lawsuit.

Takeaways:  Emotional distress is certainly a “five dollar word” and can be easily used by an upset employee.  But as a successful legal claim, it is rare.  An employer should consult with legal counsel when there is a possibility that “severe” or “atrocious” conduct occurred, but run-of-the-mill incidents of negative interactions or nasty misconduct can usually be addressed on their own terms and without an underlying concern about legal liability.