Employee thinks he has you over a barrel? If it sounds like extortion, fire him!

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in Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

You know that you can’t retaliate against an employee who, in good faith, complains about alleged discrimination. That’s true even if it turns out that he was wrong and no discrimination actually occurred.

The key there is “good faith.” It’s not retaliation to fire someone who is simply trying to extort a benefit by making a frivolous complaint.

Most important: Document the events leading up to the termination, including the details of the employee complaint.

That way, if you have to, you can later prove to a court that you fired someone who was using a discrimination complaint as a tool to get something from the company he wasn’t entitled to—and not as a means to resolve a problem.

Recent case: Lionel Pye, who is black, was hired as a temporary worker at a lab equipment manufacturer. After a three-month observation period, he was set to become a full-time employee. That’s when the trouble began.

First, Pye asked the company payroll supervisor to fill out a housing form he needed to receive emergency housing assistance. The payroll supervisor apparently didn’t act as fast as she could have. Pye would later claim she called the form “stupid” and called him a racial epithet.

Pye complained to HR, which investigated. The payroll supervisor admitted she had called the form “stupid” and apologized. She denied using any racial slurs.

When HR met with Pye to discuss how to resolve his complaint, he apparently told them he wanted a better job, with better pay and perhaps a company car. Plus, he allegedly said that a million-dollar company could “go under” if he wasn’t “taken care of.”

The company took his statements as extortion threats and fired him.

Pye sued, claiming the company retaliated against him for complaining about discrimination and having to endure a hostile work environment.

The court tossed out the case. It concluded that there is a big difference between a legitimate, good-faith discrimination complaint and a disputed one in which the employee appears to be trying to get something he isn’t entitled to. (Pye v. NuAire International, et al., No. 08-5992, DC MN, 2010)

Advice: If you ever feel an employee is trying to extort benefits by alleging discrimination, you are allowed to discipline the employee.

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