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Loud and inappropriate gripe? OK to punish, even if complaint involved discrimination

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It goes without saying that employers can’t punish employees because they have complained about discrimination. That would be retaliation, and could mean a lost lawsuit even if the employee wasn’t correct about her allegations.

But that doesn’t mean you have to tolerate loud, obnoxious or disruptive complaints, no matter what their content. That’s simply unacceptable in the workplace.

Recent case: Mildred Christmas, who is black, was passed over for a promotion in favor of a white man she claimed was less qualified. Christmas filed an internal complaint.

Shortly after, Christmas’ new boss—the man who got the job she wanted—heard her complaining loudly about supposed racial discrimination in the office.

In a loud and angry tone (which she later admitted) Christmas stated, “This is the damnedest place I ever saw. They discriminate against black folks.”

The outburst earned her a written reprimand for unprofessional conduct.

That’s when she decided to sue for retaliation, arguing that a reasonable employee would have been dissuaded from complaining about discrimination in the first place if she knew she would be reprimanded for speaking out about it.

The court agreed—in theory. If, in fact, she had made the statement in a normal tone of voice, it would have been retaliation.

But her method of delivery was unacceptable and therefore her employer was free to punish Christmas for her delivery, not her message. (Christmas v. North Carolina Department of Administration, No. 5:09-CV-346, ED NC, 2011)

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