'Kick Me' Sign Becomes Federal Case for Intel

Henry Palacio, a 50-year-old Intel Corp. (INTC) employee in Rio Rancho, N.M., was busy making chips last summer when one of his co-workers stuck a "kick me" sign on his back.

He thought he'd felt something. He asked a safety rep if something was stuck on his back. The safety rep said no, but with a grin, so Mr. Palacio sought a second opinion.

He turned to a trusted co-worker, and when he turned around to show his back, another co-worker yelled, "Don't read it. Just do it."

You can guess what happened next: Thwack! A big ol" foot, right in the keister.

You won't believe what happened after that. Mr. Palacio then asked the same co-worker, who had just kicked him, the same question yet again. Thwack!

Then he asked a third time. Thwack!

By now, Mr. Palacio's co-workers on the "Intel Hitachi Shift 7" were really laughing.

He turned to another co-worker, a man who had welcomed him when he first arrived in New Mexico from California in 2008. This co-worker had even purchased Christmas gifts for Mr. Palacio's children. And when Mr. Palacio turned again to show his backside, thwack! He was kicked a fourth time.

So what did Mr. Palacio do after being kicked four times? He turned around to let it happen yet again. "He's had his butt kicked enough," said another co-worker, who finally intervened and then removed the "kick-me" tag.

Phew! My own rump grew sore just reading these details in the workplace-harassment lawsuit Mr. Palacio recently filed against Intel and seven of his co-workers.

Mr. Palacio "felt demoralized and assaulted and he began to cry during the drive home," reads the complaint filed in federal district court in Albuquerque, N.M. "He could not tell his wife because he was so embarrassed and ashamed."

Intel has yet to file a legal response in the kick-me case. "We are aware of the complaint and are evaluating it, however we have not been served so we don't know when we'll be filing a response," Intel spokesman Chuck Mulloy wrote me in an email Wednesday. He declined further comment.

If the lawsuit is to be believed, Intel has quite a crew of pranksters on its Hitachi Shift 7. Mr. Palacio also complains they sometimes hide his clean-room gowns, tilt his monitor into "a non-ergo position" and stuff garbage into a bag he uses to keep work-related items. "The message was clear that Palacio was only as good as garbage," the suit says. After complaining about these harassments, he claims he also found a twist tie among the trash stuffed in his bag, which appeared to be fashioned into a noose. He took this as a menacing symbol of retaliation.

Mr. Palacio claims he wasn't the only target of this mischief. One guy had the side mirrors on his Jeep moved around. Others endured name calling and even "nipple pinching," Mr. Palacio's lawsuit alleges. "INTEL Hitachi Shift 7 employees are their own worst enemy," it says.

The lawsuit claims racial discrimination because Mr. Palacio is from the Philippines. He "was not their kind and had intruded into their perceived control of the Shift due to his outstanding performance," the complaint reads. It also claims sex discrimination, arguing none of these jokers would have ever put a "kick-me" sign on a woman.

Intel opened shop in New Mexico in 1980, turning an old sod farm into a gleaming semiconductor-fabrication plant. Today, it is the state's largest industrial employer with 3,500 employees. The company ranks No. 54 on this year's Fortune 500 list with $53.3 billion in revenue.

You would think a corporation this size would be schooled enough in the field of HR to prevent a "kick-me" sign from becoming a federal case. Maybe Intel tried.

"When you slice and dice these kinds of allegations, you may find out that only a small fraction of them in reality occurred," said Todd Fredrickson, a Denver labor law attorney who has handled in cases in New Mexico.

Mr. Fredrickson of Fisher & Phillips LLP typically defends companies against workplace claims, so I asked him to review the "kick-me" complaint. He said it does little to substantiate the sophomoric behavior it alleges is truly linked to racial or gender discrimination. He said he also finds it surprising a company as large as Intel would tolerate the kind of prankster culture alleged in the complaint.

Mr. Palacio, however, claims the company did very little to investigate his grievances. His supervisor told him to "Get over it, and move on," his lawsuit claims. His supervisor also praised one of the pranksters as "a stand up guy" for admitting he put the "kick-me" tag on Mr. Palacio's back.

Mr. Palacio claims he never received a response from Intel's HR department until he finally reported the incident to police. Two of his co-workers were convicted of petty misdemeanor battery and ordered to perform 16 hours of community service. Intel eventually fired them and one other co-worker, the lawsuit states.

Clearly, no company can tolerate these sorts of antics. What may be intended as fraternal fun can be perceived, or legally construed, as hostility. These days, I'm not even sure first-grade teachers will put up with a "kick-me" sign.

Still, given how many times Mr. Palacio turned around for these ruthless jokers, for one of the oldest gags in the book, I'm left to wonder one thing: What the heck did he think it said on his back? Intel Inside?

(Al's Emporium, written by Dow Jones Newswires columnist Al Lewis, offers commentary and analysis on a wide range of business subjects through an unconventional perspective. The column is published each Tuesday and Thursday at 9 a.m. ET. Contact Al at al.lewis@dowjones.com or tellittoal.com)