I have run across the term “cat’s paw” several times in the past, including just recently. It comes supposedly from an old Aesop’s fable that was adapted by Frenchman Jean de La Fontaine under the title Le Singe et le Chat that appeared in the second collection of his Fables in 1679. It tells the story of a cat that was convinced to pull chestnuts out of a fire by a monkey supposedly to share, however the cat never got its share. The fable became wide spread as a lesson in not becoming an unknowing dupe.
HR is often the dupe
The case I originally wrote about in 2008 involved a supervisor that used HR to get rid of someone he did not care for. HR did not do a proper investigation, relying on the word of the supervisor and subsequently fired an employee who should not have been terminated.
In a more recent decision from August 29, 2016 the Court of Appeals in the Second Circuit decided on a case where HR was once more the dupe. In this case however, it was not a supervisor who presented evidence it was another employee, the one accused of sexual harassment. The accused employee created false evidence of a consensual sexual relationship and got to HR first with his evidence. HR was convinced of the female’s guilt and never considered her evidence. The court said they were incorrect in doing so, they were duped in doing so. According to attorney Jordan Hollander of Genova Burns, LLC the courts said “the Second Circuit held that an employer may be held liable under a cat’s paw theory of liability for an employee’s animus, regardless of the employee’s role within the organization, if the employer’s own negligence gives effect to that animus and causes the victim to suffer an adverse employment action.”
This is an important decision for employers. Not only can you be held liable for the actions of supervisors, you can now also be held liable for the actions of employees. Hollander recommends thorough investigations as a way to prevent HR becoming a dupe.
2008 Blog post
Here is the post that described the first time I came across the concept of a “cat’s paw” action in HR.
I learned a new phrase today so I thought I would teach it to you. I was reading an article on a case on discrimination that was headed to the U. S. Supreme Court before it got settled at the last minute. It involved a case of discrimination in which a Hispanic supervisor was biased against a black employee. The supervisor was made life difficult for the employee in a number of ways, including assigning him to weekend overtime work. The employee refused in one case. The supervisor took his case to the regional HR manager (who worked in Arizona, not New Mexico where the supervisor and employee were located). The HR manager told the supervisor to tell the employee that refusal to work would be grounds for termination. The employee called in sick instead of coming to work and was fired.
The employee filed a discrimination claim. Initially the courts dismissed the claim, but an appeals court reversed saying that HR was the decision maker, but it was based upon information provided by the supervisor and what was given was not the complete story. It was headed to the Supreme Court, but the company settled before it got there, paying out $250,000 and committing to a lot of training.
In the description of the case they used the term “cat’s paw.” I had no idea what this meant so I headed to the Internet. Basically it is a term that comes from a fable in which a monkey convinces a cat to reach into a fire to retrieve roasting chestnuts. The cat does so, gets its paw singed and the monkey gets all the chestnuts. The cat was duped into being the tool of the monkey, keeping the monkey from getting burned.
In this particular case the HR manager was the cat’s paw of the supervisor. The supervisor, by not giving all the information, duped the HR manager into making a decision that the supervisor did not want to make or could not make, but wanted that result. The HR manager, by being remote did not know of previous bias against the employee or favoritism for other employees. The HR manager did not do his/her homework in the case.
The result of this shows that the company can still be held liable for decisions made with good intentions by unknowing parties if the complete story is not known. This means that HR managers need to thoroughly investigate before making recommendations on terminations, etc. As a consultant I occasionally get calls asking “can we fire this person?” I find out about the facts of the case, but my line of questioning always comes back to “Is there any reason to suspect that there may be some bias in this situation?” I ask that question several times, several ways.
So avoid being a “cat’s paw” in situations. Don’t allow yourself to be duped into making a decision to justify someone else’s bias.
Picture credit: Unknown