In case you missed it last week, four former Seattle-based Delta Air Lines employees filed a lawsuit against the company, saying they were fired for speaking Korean.
The old saying I have as an HR leader goes something like this: In America, allegations are free. You've got the right to bring claims forward. Many people do. Some of those claims are 100% true. A lot of the claims are afterthought allegations, with the real reasons for terminations being business-related. Sometimes, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.
This is what we pay the HR generalist (at all levels) with employee relations responsibilities for. Bigger companies have ER specialists that serve as the gatekeepers for situations that involve terminations.
So let's look at the reported facts of the Delta/Korean worker lawsuit and handicap what's going on from an employee relations perspective.
In other words to my good readers: HR, DO YOUR JOB. Analysis after the jump for your comments, rundown courtesy of wire reports and The Hill:
"Four former Delta Air Lines employees filed a lawsuit against the company, saying they were fired for speaking Korean.
Ji-Won Kim, Lilian Park, Jean Yi and Jongjin An worked as desk and gate agents for the airline at Seattle-Tacoma International Airport, which has daily Delta flights to South Korea.
The four Korea-born women claim in the lawsuit that they were “singled out and admonished” for speaking Korean. Three of the four women are U.S. citizens.
Yi told Seattle TV station KIRO 7 that Korean-speaking passengers who weren't fluent in English felt more comfortable speaking with her at the airport.
One of the plaintiffs said a manager told her that airline employees who didn't speak Korean had complained and asked her to “limit speaking Korean.”
The women, who were all fired in May 2017, claim in the lawsuit that other foreign language–speaking employees were not asked to limit their non-English communications.
The company said the four women were terminated for "offering unauthorized upgrades," according to the lawsuit. The women say the upgrades were standard, particularly for oversold flights, and that other agents who engaged in the same practices were not fired.
An attorney for the women said it is also possible that their firings were related to their reporting of sexual harassment — all four claimed that they were sexually harassed by the same male employee, who is still working for the airline.
A Delta spokesperson told KIRO 7 in a statement that the airline “does not tolerate workplace discrimination or harassment of any kind” and that the allegations against the male employee were “found to be without merit.”
"These former employees were unfortunately but appropriately terminated because the company determined they violated ticketing and fare rules,” the spokesperson said. “Delta is confident that these claims will ultimately be determined to be without merit."
This kind of makes me miss being heavily involved in employee relations issues that can ultimately end up in legal action. Delta's got a solid case if the following elements are present behind the scenes, deep down in the guts of the employee relations file of this case. Follow me and tell me what I'm missing in the comments. Delta has a good position IF:
1--There was a clear progressive path related to the the group of 4 employees violating ticketing and fare rules. Were they warned prior to being termed? If so, Delta's in great shape. If they weren't warned, it's a little more mucky.
2--Delta has a clean history of terming similar employees for ticketing and fare rules violation across multiple Title 7 areas - gender, national origin, etc. If there's not solid history across Title 7 classes, it's mucky.
3--The Harassment issue has a full investigation file (I say that in general terms) and whoever brought that to Delta's attention got closure from the appropriate Delta person and they can show it was investigated to an appropriate level.
4--The speaking Korean issue is a bit dicey. This group of employees was valued for their language skills, so this request is interesting and problematic. How did the group use Korean when it wasn't a business necessity? You have to assume they used it to talk to each other and other employees felt on the outside as a result. Is that worth a conversation? Maybe. A lot of merits of this comes down to what was said in the conversation, the timing of it vs. the decision to term, if similar conversations happened with other language groups who weren't termed, etc.
What did I miss? LMK.
The biggest item for consideration here is #1 and #2. If the employees making the claim were warned before being termed and the company has a history of terming employees for upgrade/ticketing/fare rule violations, Delta is in pretty good shape.
If #1 and #2 is murky at best, #3 and #4 come into play to a larger degree.
Good HR/employee relations practices (which I'm sure exist to a large degree at Delta) require lots of discipline. The merits of each case really come down to the level of discipline a company shows. And if you were wondering, a quick google search shows gate agents are non-unionized at Delta.
HR, do your job.