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Don’t retaliate against employees for controversial public opinions

by on
in Leaders & Managers,People Management

If your organization does business with any government entity (from a state agency to a local school board), be wary of allowing government officials to become involved in your employee discipline or termination matters. And never succumb to outside pressure to fire an employee simply because that employee had spoken out against the government entity.

Although First Amendment free-speech rights don't apply in your private workplace, employees are private citizens outside your doors, and they're free to participate in whatever public forums they choose. As a general policy, you shouldn't retaliate against employees simply because they exercise their free-speech rights off duty.

Recent case: Bank teller Betty Lou Dossett, an at-will employee, spoke out against a proposed school district merger at a local Nebraska school board meeting. In response, the school board president allegedly complained to Dossett's boss, saying that he'd pull the school's account from the bank unless the bank fired Dossett.

The bank manager complied and fired Dossett.

Dossett took a unique route to the courthouse, filing her lawsuit under Section 1983 of the federal Civil Rights Act of 1871. That section prohibits conspiracy to deny people of their civil rights. She argued that the bank had conspired with the school district to retaliate against her for exercising free speech.

The first jury to hear the case awarded Dossett $1.5 million. The judge found that amount excessive, so he granted a new trial, which the bank won.

But Dossett appealed that ruling, and now a court has agreed with her, sending her claim back for a new trial. It decided that private employers can be held liable for conspiring with government agencies to violate the First Amendment rights of a private employee. (Dossett v. First State Bank, No. 03-2426, 8th Cir., 2005)

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