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When it comes to handling employee complaints of unfair treatment, you'd better have a policy and a procedure in place to handle retaliation claims.

That's the $520,000 message a federal court recently sent an employer who wasn't prepared to handle retaliation complaints.

Recent case: Attorney Dawn Gallina complained to her law firm's partners that, since she'd had a child, her supervisor had begun questioning her commitment to the firm and treating her differently from the law practice's male attorneys. When she complained to the firm's partners, they simply urged her not to file a harassment complaint. Eventually, the firm fired Gallina for poor performance.

She sued, citing retaliation, and won $520,000 in compensatory damages and back pay. (Gallina v. Mintz, Levin et al., No. 03-1883, 4th Cir., 2005) Key point: The court noted that the law firm had a sexual harassment policy and contact person, but no policy or contact person regarding retaliation complaints.

4 elements of an effective policy

Avoid a similar fate by ensuring that you have an anti-retaliation policy that contains:

1. A statement declaring that the organization will not tolerate unlawful retaliation.

2. A description of your internal reporting procedures, similar to those in your anti-harassment policy.

3. A description of an "alternative channel" that employees can use to report complaints against direct supervisors.

4. A promise to investigate each complaint and communicate an appropriate response to the complaining employee.

Act, don't react

Also: Don't sit back and wait for employees to raise the retaliation red flag. You and the organization's supervisors should ask enough questions after an employee complains of harassment to head off, or at least identify, any retaliation hot spots before they erupt into full-blown lawsuits.

Start building a "nonretaliation" record right after you receive a harassment or other complaint. How? Give complaining employees a copy of your anti-retaliation policy (even if they already have a copy of your employee handbook) and review it together. Do the same with supervisors who manage those employees.

Reassure employees that you take the policy seriously. Urge them to come to you if they sense any retaliation. Document your actions.

Don't risk being taught a $520,000 lesson.

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