The danger of telling an employee 'I love you'

Rich Meneghello, BridgeTower Media Newswires

Of all the heartfelt gestures that can be made on Valentine’s Day – sending roses, a box of chocolates or even just a greeting card – perhaps nothing means more than simply saying “I love you.” But an employer that did just that, and encouraged its workforce to share the same sentiments with co-workers on a regular basis, learned the hard way that such comments could lead to a lawsuit.

Introducing Onionhead

Cost Containment Group (CCG) is an organization based in Syosset, New York, that operates several affiliate companies in the field of health care support. In 2007, the organization’s CEO retained a consultant to help improve communication and teamwork at the office. He hired Linda “Denali” Jordan, the founder of the Harnessing Happiness Foundation, a nonprofit with a program that features a cartoon character you’ve probably not heard of before: Onionhead.

According to CCG, the Onionhead character is a communication strategy tool designed to improve workplace interactions. According to the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), Onionhead is a religious practice foisted upon an unwitting workforce. In legal filings, the EEOC claims that Denali diagnosed the CCG workplace with “disharmony” when she first arrived, so she set out to change the atmosphere by creating camaraderie and a “unification in the people.”

Forced to say “I love you”

One of the primary tenets of the program presented to CCG was that employees were required to say “I love you” when speaking to each other because, according to Denali, everyone was a part of one family. However, that was not the only unusual practice put into place by CCG.

According to the EEOC, workers were forced to participate in late-night praying and chanting sessions until 1:30 a.m. during a weekend company retreat. Also, managers sent emails discussing “energetic force fields of spirit” and “our universal consciousness joining with other sun universes,” and instructed employees to shut off the office’s fluorescent lamps and instead work by desk lamp, explaining that “demons” could enter through overhead lights and “fry” their brains. Moreover, CCG personnel installed Buddha and angel statues, hung spiritual posters, lit candles, burned incense and played spiritual music around the office. A utility closet became a resource library, complete with religious books, statues and a trickling waterfall “where angels could dwell.”

The EEOC became involved when some workers complained that the Onionhead practice was actually a religion that was being forced upon them, causing several to lose their jobs.

Not feeling the love

One employee worked remotely until, she alleges, Denali told her that the “Universe” had sent her a message that she needed to move her family to be closer to the office. She alleges that CCG terminated her employment after she refused and that Denali warned her that she would be damned to hell if she applied for unemployment.

Another employee claims that she actively resisted Onionhead by keeping overhead lights on, avoiding group meetings and refusing to give a picture of her children to Denali to hang in her office alongside other members of the workplace “family.” One day, Denali sent an email to staff talking about a planetary alignment due to occur the next Friday that would be the “beginning of a new era, an era of truth or consequences.” That Friday, CCG terminated the noncompliant worker.

Two account managers said they confronted Denali and informed her that they did not want to be involved in the Onionhead program because of their own religious views. The workers claim that they were then expelled from their private offices and forced to share a less desirable workspace, and that at one point, Denali stared at them while saying, “The demons must be so angry right now.”

Legal battle rages on

In 2014, the EEOC filed a Title VII claim in federal court against CCG alleging religious discrimination. The EEOC claims that CCG violated antidiscrimination law by imposing the Onionhead belief system, subjecting workers to an unwelcome religious environment, terminating several workers based on their religious beliefs, failing to accommodate those who did not want to participate in the Onionhead program, and retaliating against those who opposed the practice.

CCG denied these accusations, arguing that the Onionhead practice is not a religion. It also claimed that it had legitimate reasons for terminating the at-will workers (including insubordination, falsifying sick leave, obsolescence, incompetence, failure to report an absence, etc.) and that several of them quit of their own accord and cannot sustain a legal claim.

Almost three years later, the claim is still being litigated, although the court recently ruled that Onionhead is a religion and that several of the employees could proceed with their religious discrimination claims against the employer. A trial date has not been set, and the employer is seeking to appeal the decision before a jury ever sees the case.

Lessons to be learned

The first lesson to be learned from this case is to avoid the temptation to tell employees that you love them this Valentine’s Day. Sure, let them know how much you value them, and how much you enjoy having them on your team, but professing your love could lead to problems. Even more importantly, avoid instructing employees to verbalize their love for each other, as that could be interpreted the wrong way.

This case also shows that a line needs to be drawn between personal philosophies and company teamwork strategies. Even if an employer doesn’t believe it will be accused of running a cult or a new-age religion, it can get into trouble if it’s perceived as interfering with an employee’s belief system or personal values and viewpoints. In other words, keep Valentine’s Day as secular as possible. Give flowers, and perhaps chocolates, to show appreciation, but resist saying “I love you.”


Rich Meneghello is a partner in the Portland office of Fisher Phillips, a national firm dedicated to representing employers’ interests in all aspects of workplace law. Contact him at 503-205-8044 or, or follow him on Twitter – @pdxLaborLawyer.