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Independent investigations are key to making decisions stick and avoiding retaliation claims

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Employees who file EEOC or internal complaints charging discrimination often behave as if their complaint is a job guarantee. Approach them about performance problems, and they immediately cry “retaliation.” But you can’t allow your workplace practices to be held hostage if you have legitimate concerns about performance.

The key is an independent investigation, especially if the prior complaints are against a supervisor. Let someone else make the ultimate decision after reviewing the complainant’s work performance. In fact, that should be your standard preventive practice, anyway.

Recent case: Doretha White and Agnes Brown, both Caucasian, worked as 911 dispatchers for Greene County. Their immediate supervisor, Anne Harrison, was black. Apparently they didn’t get along because White and Brown filed an internal complaint alleging reverse race discrimination and a hostile work environment. The women claimed that Harrison allowed other employees to watch “pornographic television shows” in the 911 operations room and subjected them to racially and sexually explicit language.

When White and Brown were fired for poor performance, they filed a lawsuit alleging retaliation for complaining about Harrison. But the county was prepared—it showed that Harrison hadn’t made the decision to terminate White and Brown. Instead, another supervisor higher up made the call after an independent investigation.

The supervisor testified that he followed the same standard procedure as he did in all other termination decisions. He reviewed each file, spoke with the supervisor, interviewed other employees and gave each employee a chance to address the issues before making a final decision. That was enough to convince the court that the decision was truly independent and not related to earlier complaints. (Brown, White v. Greene County, No. 3:05-CV-89, MD GA, 2007)


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