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No Title VII claims for hotel employee fired after refusing guidance from HR and management

By Marjorie Johnson, J.D.

Hotel management attempted to train the front desk representative on how to better handle uncomfortable situations after she became upset by a customer’s question about her nationality, but she became combative, wouldn’t respond to HR, and never returned to work.

A front desk representative who undisputedly refused her supervisor’s offer of training on how to interact with hotel guests in a hospitable manner after responding poorly to a guest’s inquiry about her national origin, and who was subsequently terminated after she became unwilling to speak to HR or management—or to even return to work—failed to advance her Title VII claims of race and national origin discrimination and retaliation. A federal district court in Minnesota found that she could not show she was meeting the hotel’s legitimate job expectations, that non-Chinese employees were treated less favorably, or that her ultimate termination was causally connected to her complaint over the customer’s question about whether she was from China (Dahlbergv. Radisson Blu Mall of America, September 9, 2019, Doty, D.).

Uncomfortable guest interaction. About a month after she was hired to work for a Radisson hotel, the employee, who was responsible for checking guests in and out of the hotel and fielding guest questions and comments, purportedly felt threatened when a guest asked her if she was from China. She responded that she was not comfortable answering the question, but the guest then asked where in China she was from. The employee replied that she did not want to answer. Noticing that the guest appeared to be shocked by her response, the desk supervisor asked to talk to the employee in her office.

Rejects supervisor’s help. After the employee explained that she did not want to engage guests in discussions about personal matters, the supervisor explained that engaging in small talk was part of working in the hospitality industry and that she needed to respond to guest questions in a friendlier manner. The supervisor also offered to help her craft appropriate responses to guest questions that might make her uncomfortable but felt that the employee was defensive and that the meeting was ultimately unproductive.

Combative meeting with HR. The next day (Thursday), the employee reported to work and requested the day off, stating she was still upset from yesterday’s guest interaction. In response, the HR director provided her with an employee assistance number so she could set up counseling sessions to work through her distress over the incident. When she returned to work the following day (Friday), she met with both the HR director and director of guest services, who sought to determine whether she could return to work. She told them that the guest interaction had been “the most stressful ten seconds of her life,” and purportedly mimicked the guest in a loud and angry manner. She also admittedly said that if they wanted to see her loud and aggressive, “she would show them” and that she was not “soft spoken like white people.”

Paramedics called. The HR director offered her the weekend off to regroup, but she refused and left the office. The facilities director found her in the break room crying and brought her back to the HR director’s office to try to calm her down. She became increasingly upset and announced that she could not feel her hands or feet and was having trouble breathing. The hotel called the paramedics, who arrived with the police and attempted to escort her from the hotel. She refused to leave, and hotel security eventually asked the police to issue a trespass order. The paramedics then took her to the hospital, where she remained for 72 hours on a psychiatric hold.

Refuses to speak by phone, never returns. The following Monday, the employee sent an email to the HR director asking if she should return to work. The HR director and director of guest services called her several times over the next few days, but she did not answer the phone and instead sent an email stating that she preferred to communicate by email and felt it was unsafe to speak with them. Though Radisson sent her an email advising her of her shifts the following week, she never returned. After not hearing from her for two weeks, Radisson terminated her.

No direct evidence. The court first found no direct evidence of discrimination. Though the employee initially stated that the HR director and others had expressly disparaged her because she was Chinese, she subsequently retracted those statements and provided no other direct evidence of discriminatory animus.

Unable/unwilling to meet expectations. She also failed to make out her prima facie case of discrimination since she was undisputedly not meeting the hotel’s legitimate job expectations. As a front desk representative, she was required to interact with hotel guests in a hospitable manner and her uncomfortable guest interaction showed that she needed additional training to do so. Radisson was willing to train her further to help her succeed, but her subsequent conduct made clear that she was unable to meet the job’s expectations. Even leaving the “dramatic events” of the Friday meeting aside, her unwillingness thereafter to speak to HR or management, or to even return to work, left Radisson with little choice but to terminate her as she effectively abandoned her job.

Not treated unfairly. Her bias claim also failed because she was unable to show that she was treated less favorably than similarly situated non-Chinese employees. There was no indication that non-Chinese employees were not required to engage guests in a hospitable manner, or that they were not terminated for failing to report to work for two weeks. Moreover, no other evidence supported her subjective belief that her ethnicity was a causal factor in her termination.

No retaliation. The employee similarly failed to advance her claim that she was fired because she complained about a guest’s questions about her ethnicity. Even assuming that she engaged in protected conduct, she couldn’t establish a causal connection to her termination. Rather, it was apparent that she was terminated due to numerous intervening factors unrelated to her complaint.