Employees can’t be punished for reporting alleged discrimination. That would be retaliation. But within reasonable limits, managers have the right to tell employees how to report alleged discrimination.
For example, if your organization has a clear process for reporting problems, managers can tell employees to use that process. And they can reprimand employees who don’t follow the rules.
Recent case: Christopher Graham, who is black, worked for AT&T Mobility repairing cell towers. He frequently complained about discrimination at the company, filing a number of lawsuits and EEOC complaints. AT&T Mobility responded to each complaint, and none of Graham’s legal claims succeeded.
That didn’t slow him down. When Graham missed out on temporary supervisory assignments, he thought his race was the reason. He complained in an email copied to a long list of employees who weren’t involved in the decision-making process.
His supervisor reprimanded him for the email, explaining that Graham was expected to follow company rules for raising complaints.
Graham sued, alleging the reprimand was retaliation for reporting race discrimination.
The court disagreed. It said Graham had merely been reprimanded for not following directions on how to file a complaint, not for actually complaining. The court tossed out his lawsuit. (Graham v. AT&T Mobility, No. 09-C-6564, ND IL, 2011)
Final note: Of course, you do have to create an effective and easy way for employees to lodge complaints—and make sure employees know about it. Include the information in orientation programs and in. Remind employees about the process by addressing it in the employee newsletter and on the employee web site. You may also want to include a reminder on stubs, where you can rotate important reminders on other topics, too.