When an employee makes noise about discrimination, it's natural to become defensive. It hurts to be accused of breaking the law, especially if it isn't true. But don't let a knee-jerk reaction turn a sure win into a loss. Punishing employees who sue or threaten to sue is counterproductive and downright stupid. But it's a frequent mistake and the major reason that employees lose their discrimination cases but win by claiming retaliation.
Recent case: Shortly after the company promoted Sonya Haas to branch manager, a new supervisor arrived on the scene. Tension between the two arose immediately. The supervisor increased Haas' production goals. Haas became convinced the company wanted to push her out because of her age. So she complained, alleging age discrimination.
The next day, Haas took time off for a doctor's appointment and didn't return to the office. The company fired her a few days later, ostensibly for failing to return after her afternoon appointment. The company never gave her a chance to explain why she didn't return.
The court dismissed her age discrimination case, but allowed her retaliation claim to go forward, saying a jury could conclude that the excessive discipline constituted a form of punishment for her lawsuit. (Haas v. Kelly Services, No. 04-2381, 8th Cir. 2005)
Bottom line: At the first hint of a lawsuit, call a meeting. Remind supervisors that it must be business as usual. Ignore provocative behavior and stick to the rules. Docu-ment everything. Record and dock late arrivals, job mistakes and unscheduled absences, just as you've always done, but don't come down harder on the litigious employee. Enforce the rules equally to guard against retaliation accusations.
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