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When whistle-blower complains, watch out for supervisor retaliation

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

When an employee believes it’s necessary to end-run a supervisor to complain about potentially illegal conduct, resist the temptation to ignore the complaint. And whatever you do, don’t tell the whistle-blower to take it up with the supervisor.

Either way, it amounts to doing nothing. The problem won’t go away on its own. And chances are, it will grow instead.

Consider, for example, what might happen when a concerned employee is told to discuss the problem with the supervisor. If he does, the supervisor could become defensive and perhaps even downright hostile. From then on, that employee could well imagine that retaliation motivates anything the supervisor does.

Recent case: Todd and Mark Pearson both worked for the Big Lake Police Department. They became concerned that the chief of police—their direct supervisor—was bending the rules on overtime. They thought the chief’s insistence that employees be at work and ready to start 15 minutes before their paid time began might violate the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA).

Plus, one of the Pearsons was responsible for administering a grant that didn’t allow substitution of compensatory time instead of time-and-a-half pay for officers who worked overtime. That conflicted with the department’s practice.

Finally, the two had received an e-mail from the chief that they believed reflected sexual harassment. They said it contained pornographic images.

They went over the chief’s head to the city administrator, who told them that they shouldn’t do an end run around their boss. He said they should approach the chief with their concerns.

From then on, the Pearsons claimed, they were retaliated against. They said the chief chastised them for their complaints. Over the next few months, their positions were eliminated, they were transferred to lower-ranking jobs and were suspended for allegedly yelling at the chief.

The Pearsons sued, alleging retaliation for complaining about possible sexual harassment and reporting potential FLSA violations.

The court said there was enough evidence for their case to continue under both the FLSA and the Minnesota Whistleblower Act. (Pearson, et al., v. City of Big Lake, No. 08-1370, DC MN, 2010)

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