Employees who complain about discrimination engage in what the law calls “protected activity.” They can’t be punished for complaining.
But not every complaint is protected. For example, when an unhappy employee goes to her supervisor and complains she isn’t being treated fairly, that’s not tantamount to complaining about discrimination. Her complaint has to be more specific to warrant protection.
Recent case: Molly Vang, who is Hmong, was a dental assistant who worked primarily with a dentist of Egyptian nationality. The two apparently didn’t get along personally. Vang complained to HR that the dentist made her feel “mentally abused” because he was constantly “yelling and shouting” at her.
Vang was transferred to another shift so she didn’t have to work with the dentist. She then posted a note on the office “appreciation board” telling everyone how much she appreciated the dentists in the office, but leaving out the Egyptian. She was told to remove the note.
Over the next few weeks, Vang allegedly became insubordinate and uncooperative. Then she was fired after calling her new supervisor a liar in front of other dental assistants.
Vang sued, alleging she had been fired in retaliation for protected activity.
The court rejected her claim, pointing out that her complaint to HR wasn’t protected because it raised only yelling and mental abuse, not a specific type of discrimination. (Vang v. Smile Center, No. 09-3032, DC MN, 2010)