It is easy for negative workplace culture to run out of control -- and in most cases, there are few ways to stop it, let alone the employers being aware of it. Maybe an inside joke runs through the office for months, desensitizing the jokers to the delicate nature of what they are doing -- and eventually, things get carried away, and the joke offends someone.
Did the employees intend for this to happen? Surely not, but it is not as if they were unaware of the possible issues their joke could create. And, ultimately, it does not excuse their behavior.
These types of scenarios come up all the time in the workplace, and in some cases, they can give rise to a lawsuit. Just such a case came and went in Massachusetts, where a man was allegedly fired for taking paternity leave, something he blamed on the "macho culture" of the company he worked for.
The man took paternity leave after he and his mentally ill wife had their second child, time that is guaranteed under the Family Medical Leave Act. Four months after he took the leave, the man was fired because of "fair" performance and "low billable hours."
However, evidence points to the man taking a temporary position in Germany that required less work. In addition, the man claims that his employers actually gave him less work as a retaliatory act for the FMLA leave he took. Even further, the company tried to explain the firing by saying multiple employees were fired at the same time for not meeting billable hour goals the year before. The man involved in this case met his billable hour goal from the previous year.
Ultimately, what can be learned from this case? First, FMLA leave is protected, and no employer can infringe on your rights to such leave. If they take action against you, then you have the right to seek a civil lawsuit against them.
The other big point here is that this man's case was settled out of court. This is often the way these cases go now, and it can be very beneficial for the plaintiff. Less time is spent in court; there are fewer legal fees, and they come out of it with a guaranteed (though likely smaller) compensatory award for the unfair treatment they endured.
Source: The American Lawyer, "Dechert and Former Associate Settle 'Macho Culture' Retaliation Case," Sheri Qualters, Feb. 11, 2013