Not every workplace incident involving offensive conduct between employees has to end in termination. Employers can and should base their response on the circumstances uncovered during an investigation.
For example, the first time an employee uses offensive language, the appropriate remedy may be a stern warning. On other occasions, when it’s impossible to tell who said what, the proper response may be to counsel both parties.
When it’s one employee’s word against another’s, make sure your discipline isn’t unfairly one-sided.
Recent case: Maetta Vance works for Ball State University in the catering department. Vance, the only black employee there, complained that a co-worker called her an offensive racial epithet and told her she had relatives who were KKK members.
A university investigation corroborated Vance’s account of what happened. Because the co-worker had never been disciplined before, she received a simple warning that any more comments like the ones she made would mean discharge.
Vance complained later that the same co-worker allegedly called her a “porch monkey.” There were no witnesses, so the university didn’t punish the co-worker.
Vance had trouble with another employee, too. The university investigated, but this co-worker said Vance had threatened her during their encounter. Again, there were no witnesses other than the two women. The university warned both to leave each other alone.
When Vance sued, alleging a hostile environment, she lost the case. The university acted appropriately, the court reasoned. It investigated each claim and meted out punishment based on what the investigation revealed. (Vance v. Ball State University, No. 08-3568, 7th Cir., 2011)
Advice: When harassment allegations surface, quickly take action to halt the problem. That will shield you from liability in most cases of co-worker harassment.
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