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Look into all bias complaints; even ‘nontargets’ can sue

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Issue: Employees who are negatively affected by workplace discrimination can file lawsuits, even if they aren't the targets.

Risk: The EEOC is encouraging such whistle-blower suits, which opens a new vulnerability in your lawsuit armor.

Action: Investigate any discrimination complaints, even if they come from apparently "nonaffected" employees.

You already know to take minority employees' discrimination or harassment complaints seriously. But what if a white male employee blows the whistle about race discrimination he sees affecting his minority co-workers? How seriously must you take his complaints? Very seriously, if you want to avoid a federal discrimination suit.

That's because the EEOC has begun an aggressive effort to encourage lawsuits by nonminority "whistle-blowers" who observe what they perceive as a racially hostile work environment. The EEOC is encouraging such lawsuits and, sometimes, it even works with the employees' attorneys in court.

Your best bet: Investigate any complaints about discrimination or a hostile work environment, no matter who makes the complaint. And alert supervisors that all bias complaints are legitimate, even if the person complaining doesn't seem to be the main target.

Case in point: A white, male employee, Dennis Walker, complained to the warehouse manager that his African-American co-workers were being discriminated against. Walker said other white workers sang racially derogatory songs and referred to African-Americans as "monkeys." Walker never said the harassment affected him personally.

Management ignored Walker's complaints, so he went to the EEOC. The agency investigated, concluded that his complaints were valid and backed his federal lawsuit. But the courts tossed out his suit on a technicality: Walker hadn't proved that the harassment affected his own work.

Even though the court dismissed this case, its ruling practically invited other "nonprotected" employees like Walker to champion the workplace rights of racial minorities, women, the disabled and other protected classes. If Walker had claimed that he personally suffered from discrimination because of his association with the African-American employees, his case would likely have gone to trial. (Walker v. Mueller Industries, et al., No. 03-4012, 7th Cir., 2005)

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