Peterson V Hewlett Packard Corporation

The purpose of this paper is to identify problems that human resource managers face today in regards to disparate treatment, harassment, diversity, and religious beliefs in the workplace. The case of Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard is a case that has set legal precedent for employers because it shows that a well developed and implemented human resource plan will hold up in court. The case of Green v. McDonnell Douglas showed that it takes more than being a minority to claim disparate treatment and Opuku-Boateng v. California showed that employers do not have a right to deny any employee the right to practice religion without providing the court a fair amount of proof showing that allowing the religious activities would cause undue harm to the company. The two opposing viewpoints in this paper regarding discrimination against Christians and homosexuals provide good insight from both perspectives which make the case of Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard more understandable. The recommendations for human resources in this paper provide an effective and proactive approach to preventing conflict while improving awareness and reducing turnover.

Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Corporation

Introduction

The case of Richard Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard Corporation was argued in 2003 and decided in 2004 by United States Magistrate Judge, Larry M. Boyle. Peterson filed a claim against his former employer for 21 years, Hewlett-Packard, on the grounds that he was terminated unfairly because of his religious beliefs; which he felt was in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The specific violation allegations made by Peterson were disparate treatment and that HP failed to accommodate his religious beliefs (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004).

Founded by Bill Hewlett and Dave Packard in 1957, HP’s shared values have remained the same, “passion for customers, trust and respect for individuals, achievement and contribution, results through teamwork, speed and agility, meaningful innovation and uncompromising integrity" (Hewlett-Packard, 2011). Since 1957, HP has grown into one of the world’s largest manufacturers of electronic products like, computers, phones, printers, calculators and other electronic devices and services. HP’s dedication to making the world a safer place both from a manufacturing perspective and from human perspective are clear in HP’s Standards of Business Conduct (SBC) which demands that all HP employees and management treat each other with respect and dignity (Hewlett-Packard, 2011). HP has a strong diversity policy in place with non-discrimination being one of the most important initiatives. Non-discrimination at HP is not an option, it’s the norm. Diversity at HP is not only viewed as a valuable way of bringing employees and customers together, but also a strategic differentiator between HP and some of its top competitors making them more competitive (Hewlett-Packard, 2011).

Richard Peterson classified himself as a “devout Christian" who lived his life by the words of the bible and does not engage in any sinful acts (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004). To Peterson, homosexuality is the ultimate sin against God and the bible. According to HP, Peterson was a satisfactory performer at work and there were no issues with his work ethic. A problem erupted when Peterson began reading “diversity" posters in the lunch room at one of HP’s regional offices in Boise, Idaho where Peterson worked. The diversity posters were intended to promote the benefits of diversity and support HP’s “diversity in the workplace campaign". Peterson could not live with the messages that the posters were giving to employees which ranged from “blondes are smart" to “gay is ok". Because being gay is something that Peterson viewed as being a sin, Peterson did not understand why it was good for HP to promote something that he felt was morally wrong and went against the words in the bible. To get back at HP and show HP that Peterson’s views needed to be heard, Peterson took it upon himself to post scriptures from the bible that clearly made being gay a sin. Many of the posters were extremely derogatory in nature, such as the scriptural passage that Peterson posted from Leviticus in the bible which stated something similar to any man who lay’s with another man, shall be put to death and their blood will be shed (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004).

In response to the derogatory posters and scriptures that Peterson posted in the lunch room, Peterson’s supervisor decided to make Peterson aware that what he was doing was not acceptable that he should stop. During meetings with management, Peterson openly admitted to posting the scriptures in an attempt to be “hurtful" so that gays would ask for forgiveness from God and change their beliefs to reflect the beliefs that are taught in the bible (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004). After a few weeks of a paid leave of absence brought on to Peterson by HP’s management to reconsider his actions, Peterson returned to work and continued to post vulgar and inappropriate posters and scriptures in the lunch room. A final attempt was made by management to get Peterson to change his mind, but Peterson made it perfectly clear that he would remove his posters and biblical scriptures if HP would remove the diversity posters that promoted being gay as ok. HP would not compromise with Peterson’s requests and terminated him for insubordination (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004).

HP’s effort to promote and teach its employees to appreciate the differences in color, ethnic origin, gender, sexual or religious views, age and disabilities, is proof that HP truly cares about making sure that all employees know and understand that diversity benefits both employees and the company (Harris, Moran & Moran, 2007, p. 181). Many stakeholders could be affected by this case, such as society in general, employees, investors, suppliers, and customers because HP’s response to this conflict sends a clear message as to how HP manages serious challenges and how the courts handle delicate cases such as Peterson’s (Jackson, Schuler & Werner, 2009, p. 4). Every employee has the right to believe in any religion they wish and every employer has an obligation to give an employee the right to believe in any religion they wish as long as it does not cause undue hardship to the employer. The employer does not necessarily need to provide accommodations for religious views if the accommodations will cause undue hardship to the employer (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004).

Literature

The key issues in the Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard case were disparate treatment, religious discrimination, and promoting diversity in the workplace. Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was enacted to protect and prohibit employees from discrimination by an employer on the basis of race, color, religion, sex, national origin or pregnancy (Jackson, Schuler &Werner, 2009, p. 121). For disparate treatment to occur, a group member or a group of protected class members must be treated differently or favorably than another group of people (Mathis & Jackson, 2006, pp. 102-103). Burden of proof is on the employee to prove that there was an illegal action or inaction committed by the employer; however, circumstantial evidence can shift the burden of proof on to the employer (Mathis & Jackson, 2006, p. 103). There have been many similar cases in recent past that set precedent for the Peterson decision of 2004. Two key cases that contributed to the Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard outcome were Green v. McDonell Corporation and Opuku-Boateng v. California.

Green v. McDonell Douglas Corporation

In the case of Percy Green v. McDonell Douglas Corporation, Percy filed a claim against his former employer McDonell Douglas for not rehiring him after being laid off on the grounds that he was racially discriminated against for being a black man. At the moment in time Percy filed a claim was right around the time of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was being put into law. Green worked for McDonell Douglas for approximately eight years before being laid off in August of 1964 (Green v. McDonnell Douglas, 1976). From August of 1964 until July of 1965, Percy was engaged in many civil rights demonstrations outside of McDonnell Douglas causing serious disruption to the flow of business for McDonnell Douglass and in many cases forced McDonell Douglass to close down business.

In July of 1965, Green applied for a position at McDonnell Douglas and was denied because of his involvement in many of the disruptive demonstrations that he had been a part of causing problems for McDonnell Douglas to conduct business. Green’s claim was that he was denied a job because of disparate treatment. In order for Green to prove his case, Green had to fulfill four requirements of disparate treatment to shift the burden of proof on to McDonnell Douglas. These four requirements are: 1) show he is a member of a protected class, 2) show that he was qualified for the position, 3) he experienced wrong doing, and 4) prove that people outside of his class were treated favorably (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004).

The United States Court of Appeals Eighth Circuit decided that Percy Green’s claims were not of merit because of the ratio of white people that also participated in the civil rights demonstrations and were not hired for the position that he applied for were equal or less than what Green experienced. In order for disparate treatment to actually take place, all four requirements must be met and the fourth requirement in this case was not met. There was no proof that a white class or any other class of people for that matter, were treated more favorably than Green was. Furthermore and more importantly, the fact that Green caused problems and disrupted business for McDonnell Douglas, gave McDonnell Douglas the right to refuse employing him for bringing undue hardship to the organization (Green v. McDonnell Douglas, 1976).

Opuku-Boateng v. California

Opuku-Boateng v. California was a case that dealt with religious discrimination. Opuku-Boateng was a loyal member of the Seventh Day Adventist Church. The Seventh Day Adventist Church recognizes Friday evening through Saturday evening as a time to observe Sabbath (Opuku-Boateng v. California, 1996). Opuku-Boateng was a long time part-time employee for the California Food and Agriculture department which preferred employees that could work on Saturdays. Because of Opuku-Boateng’s religious beliefs, he could not work on Saturdays. After applying for a full-time job with the California Food and Agriculture department, CFA decided to pass up Opuku-Boateng’s promotion to full-time because he could not work Saturdays. Opuku-Boateng filed a lawsuit against the state of California for religious discrimination.

What makes this case relevant to Peterson’s case is that the center issue was religious discrimination and burden of proof was shifted on the employer “to articulate some legitimate, non-discriminatory reason for the employee’s rejection" (Deangelo, 2010). The state Supreme Court originally ruled in favor of the state of California but was later overturned by appellate judge Reinhardt. The reason for Reinhardt’s reversal was that the state of California failed to prove how accommodating Opuku-Boateng’s religious beliefs would have caused undue harm to the state of California; therefore, the state of California lost the case due to religious discrimination against Opuku-Boateng (Opuku-Boateng v. California, 1996). The impact of this case was significant because it was a situation in which the employer had the burden of proof to show the court that they did everything they could within reason to accommodate Opuku-Boateng’s religious beliefs. This case gave precedent for Hewlett-Packard to explain or prove why they were not willing to compromise with Peterson in regards to his requests for removal of the diversity posters.

Diversity in the Workplace

The case of Widmar v. Vincent is a great example of how important respecting other people’s religions and beliefs really is (Davis, 2004). A Supreme Court decided that a University could not prohibit Christian bible study to take place if non-religious groups could meet anywhere they pleased. The Widmar v. Vincent case later on led to a ruling in the Westside v. Mergens case in which the Supreme Court held the Widmar ruling stating that all student groups should have “equal access" to school facilities regardless of their religious belief (Davis, 2004, p. 718). In other words, the court said that a religion is a religion and it doesn’t matter what religion people belong to, or don’t belong to, because all people are equal in the eyes of the court (Davis, 2004). The Widmar and Westside cases are relevant to what happened with Peterson and Hewlett-Packard because it provides some credibility to Peterson’s claim that he was not allowed to share his religious beliefs freely.

Analysis

Every situation has two sides of the story. In the case of Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, HP’s case was much more documented and believable than Peterson’s because it was based on facts, like management taking steps to discipline Peterson and trying to accommodate Peterson. Peterson left very little evidence of his efforts to cooperate with HP and come to some kind of agreement that was both good for the HP, the stakeholders, and Peterson. Ultimately, Peterson’s unwillingness to respect his coworkers and cooperate with HP-management by adhering to HP’s diversity policy’s, is what got Peterson terminated. The impact Peterson’s case has on human resource policy and the stakeholders at HP is that HR will have to do a better job of training its employees on respecting the beliefs of other coworkers’ religions because until the Peterson case, HP really didn’t specify clearly to employees what harassment actually meant.

The final ruling in Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard was in favor of Hewlett-Packard for several reasons. The first reason was Peterson could not prove that disparate impact actually took place because he could not prove that any coworkers around him were treated more favorably than he was and that he was not terminated for any other reason than disobeying HP’s diversity policy by harassing employees with his vulgar anti-gay posters. Because Peterson could not prove that other people with similar situations were treated better than he was, the only thing that Peterson had left to argue was that HP did not accommodate his religious beliefs or rights (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004). The court addressed Peterson’s claim that HP did not accommodate his religious beliefs but later dismissed those allegations on the premise that HP-management was only given two acceptable options by Peterson for compromise, 1) tear down the diversity posters or 2) the anti-gay scriptural messages stay on the board as long as the diversity messages stay on the board. After Peterson’s claim of “failure to accommodate" was evaluated, Peterson lost the case because he had no grounds to sue HP. No rights had been violated by HP because HP had made the effort years before the Peterson incident to implement a strong diversity campaign that was in line with the Civil Rights Act of 1964 which showed the court that HP was serious about fair treatment to all employees whether they are gay, straight, white, black, a woman, or disabled (Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, 2004).

I firmly agree with the court’s final ruling because Peterson had no facts to support his claims. If a person is going to accuse their employer of specifically targeting them because of their religion, then that person should have specific evidence of events that occurred to prove it actually happen. No one person has the right to disrespect other people in the workplace because of differences in beliefs and HP did a sound job of providing evidence of their diversity initiatives and trying to work with Peterson on several occasions. According to HP’s diversity policy, Peterson owed his coworkers respect and dignity regardless of their sexual orientation, gender, age, or national origin and did not have the right to violate the harassment policy by posting negative postings in the lunch room (Hewlett-Packard, 2011). It would not be right for a gay employee at HP to post gay jokes about “devout Christians" because that would be disrespecting all Christians. Peterson had reason to feel upset for the HP’s promotion of gay acceptance because of his religious background, but Peterson had no legal rights to attack gays at HP, it is a clear violation of HP’s harassment policy; therefore, Peterson was ethically wrong for what he did and deserved to be terminated.

Peterson may have lost the case but he definitely brought up an interesting argument in regards to religious freedom. Peterson could not understand why it was ethical for HP to promote gay acceptance when his religion tells him that being gay is the worst sin a person can make outside of committing murder. The mentality of Peterson is very similar to that of Reverend David H. Roseberry who fought the Episcopal Church when he had heard of a homosexual Gene Robinson being ordained by the church (Gwynne, 2007). Roseberry could not understand how the church could promote a person into priesthood when the bible says homosexual activity is wrong. To Roseberry and many others, homosexuality was unnatural, ungodly and therefore a sin (Gwynne, 2007). The liberal-Episcopal church fought back against Roseberry stating that there are many scriptures in the bible pertaining to and condemning homosexual activity, but none of those words were said by Jesus Christ directly; therefore, it is not clear as to how Jesus viewed gay people (Gwynne, 2007).

It’s understandable as to why Peterson was upset about HP promoting the acceptance of gays because of his conservative Christian beliefs, but to say that Peterson was specifically targeted and discriminated against by HP because of his religion is obviously false. The Christian church has been accepted in the United States as one of the core religions dating back to the 1500’s and many of the values were even written into the Constitution. Conservative Christians have a tendency to exaggerate the truth to make it seem like the United States Government is at war with the Christian religion because of the many changes that have gone on for the past fifty years, like no praying in schools, pro-abortion, same-sex marriage, music, and having children out of wedlock (Krattenmaker, 2007).

Synthesis

The EEOC holds employers liable for preventing harassment in the workplace (Jackson, Schuler & Werner, 2009, p. 141). Now that HP has put the Peterson case behind them, it is very important that HP takes measures to ensure that all employees are trained and documented to show that HP has taken the steps necessary to make sure all people are treated fairly at HP. HP should maintain and open door policy that encourages people to speak up when they feel an act of harassment has taken place.

To implement an open door policy at HP, HR will need to test, train, and survey to track progress. Online testing prior to face to face training would be a great first step because HP could split the test in half so that half of the test is objective and the other half is subjective. After all the data is collected, HR at HP can then track progress for each individual and for the company as a whole to see how effective the training is working. Step two would be to conduct face to face training at key regional locations throughout the United States. The trainings would focus heavily on three key policies: diversity policy, harassment policy, and religious freedom policy. After the trainings have been conducted, step three would be to send out a mandatory follow up survey with the same questions that were asked prior to the training would be evaluated and compared to see how individuals progressed as well as the company as a whole. In each of the areas that need improvement, HR could fine tune their next training to focus on the areas that are statistically behind. Diversity training at HP is already something that HR is doing so it would be fairly easy for HR to branch off of the existing diversity training program and include more specifics on harassment and religious freedom. The details from Peterson’s case should be used to show employees what not to do, such as posting hurtful remarks in the lunch room to share your religious views.

Another method of implementing an open door policy that focuses heavily on fair treatment, respect, and dignity, HP should establish a multiple criteria performance measurement system that recognizes and rewards people for their commitment to the open door policy (Jackson, Schuler & Werner, 2009, pp. 326-329). HR management at HP should include a specific section on the performance appraisal form that uses behavioral criteria for measuring how well a person is absorbing the “open door policy". Behavior could be measured by 1) how well the individual is progressing or scoring on the HR tests and 2) how the individual’s manager sees that person working with others. By including behavior into the performance form, employees will be motivated to adhere to the strict guidelines relating to harassment and fair treatment in the workplace. Good performance measurement systems should not only benefit the individual, but the organization as well (Livingston, 2011).

Conclusion

The decision of Circuit Judge Reinhardt to dismiss Peterson’s accommodation claim based on the fact that HP was doing a good job of implementing diversity in the workplace and that there was no evidence of disparate treatment, is significant for HR professionals in the future because it shows how important it is for an employer to take a proactive approach to training employees on diversity, harassment, and religious freedom. If an employer chooses to take a reactive approach to implementing an HR program centered on fair treatment in the workplace, the odds of that employer getting sued and losing the case are much higher than if the employer took a proactive approach. Burden of proof has changed drastically over the past fifty years, shifting further away from the employee on to the employer. There is no better time than right now for an HR manager to begin implementing a long term open door policy.

My recommended strategies for HR professionals affected by Peterson v. Hewlett-Packard, Green v. McDonnell Douglas Corporation, and Opuku-Boateng v. California is to use the outcomes of these cases as a guideline to developing an open door policy by implementing a measurable training program focused on the benefits of diversity while making harassment and religious freedom key subjects of the training. The reason for including the specific topics of harassment and religious freedom are to show employees that it is ok to speak up when you see something wrong going on, but it’s not ok to share your views or beliefs with coworkers if those coworkers might find what you are saying to be hurtful or morally wrong even if it is your beliefs that are forcing you to speak your mind. Moral arguments do not belong in the workplace. Every employee is obligated to abide by the policies, procedures, and regulations of their employer and should be held accountable for their actions. My three step training program, “test, train, survey" is a simple long term program that must be conducted on a semi-annual basis until the survey data shows that the organization is one hundred percent sure of the importance and potential consequences surrounding the policies and procedures on diversity, harassment, and religious freedom. Hewlett-Packard is a great company for HR managers all over the world to use as a benchmark for training and planning implementation, HP will continue to be successful in the long term because their employees will feel comfortable at work knowing their employer cares about them enough to demand fairness, integrity and dignity in the workplace (Hewlett-Packard, 2011).