Some supervisors can’t or won’t refrain from finding ways to punish employees who complain about alleged harassment or discrimination.
That’s why it’s important for someone in HR to follow up on every complaint—even if it turns out to be unfounded—and ask whether there’s been any retaliation. If the employee says there has been, investigate and fix the situation immediately.
Recent case: Wayne Gillman worked for Inner City Broadcasting Corporation (ICBC) for more than 30 years. Then he was fired—two months after telling Cheryl Sutton, a corporate officer and part owner, that she should stop sexually propositioning him.
He sued, alleging both sexual harassment and retaliation.
Most of the conduct Gillman called sexual harassment occurred while he was out on medical leave. He claimed that Sutton raised her skirt in front of him, kissed him on his lips, touched his legs and invited him on weekend trips and a Disney World vacation. On one occasion, he said Sutton took his hand, stuck it down her shirt and asked him if he believed she needed breast reduction surgery.
The court dismissed Gillman’s sexual harassment claim because most of the incidents took place away from the workplace and while he was on leave.
But the court let the retaliation claim go forward. It said it was clear Gillman had engaged in protected activity when he told Sutton he was not interested in her sexual advances. Because he was fired shortly after, despite a long work history with the company, the court said a jury should decide whether he was fired in retaliation for rejecting the advances. (Gillman v. ICBC, No. 08-Civ-8909, SD NY, 2011)
Final note: Remember, the initial complaint that prompted an employee to sue doesn’t have to pan out. He or she can still win big on retaliation alone.