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When worker claims bias or harassment: document, investigate and communicate

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Smart employers respond to every harassment and discrimination complaint and follow up even if they believe there was nothing to the complaint. That helps catch any possible retaliation.

But some employers ignore this simple advice and choose to blow off employee complaints instead of logging them, investigating and making a determination about what happened. That’s a huge mistake.

Recent case: For seven years, Cynthia Williamson was the only woman in her section at Carolina Power and Light. She earned good performance reviews and regular raises, promotions and bonuses.

Then a new supervisor—a woman—arrived on the scene.

Almost immediately, Williamson could do nothing right. She was singled out for minor typos in memos. Her new boss apparently spoke to her in a demeaning and condescending tone—something even Williamson’s male co-workers noticed.

Before long, Williamson was demoted. Williamson’s co-workers told her they believed she was being singled out for harassment because she was the only woman, and thus an easy target. Williamson complained to HR and asked it to investigate.

Before she knew it, Williamson was called into a meeting at which her supervisor presented her with a performance improvement plan and told her she would be closely watched. An HR representative also attended the meeting. When Williamson asked her when HR would investigate her complaints, the rep said the purpose of the meeting was to resolve the complaints and that nothing else would be done.

After failing to meet the expectations the supervisor laid out, Williamson was fired. She sued, alleging sex discrimination and retaliation.

The court said her case could go to trial, based on HR’s apparent refusal to even consider her complaint and conduct any sort of investigation. The court pointed out that, had HR spoken with co-workers, it would have learned that the new supervisor seemed to be targeting the only woman in the workgroup for harassment and unfair criticism. Instead, it had done nothing. (Williamson v. Carolina Power and Light, No. 5:10-CV-258, ED NC, 2010)

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