Nothing will land an employer in legal hot water faster than firing an employee who just made a discrimination complaint. At first glance, it will almost always look like retaliation. But that doesn’t mean your hands are tied.
The key to disciplining employees is to have a good, solid reason for your decision that’s clearly not related to the employee’s other complaint. Then, document your decision, and make sure it would be grounds for termination for any employee, not just this one.
Recent case: Francis Richard worked for Cingular in a position that included interviewing and recommending applicants. Following one interview, he assured an applicant that the job was his. But higher-ups concluded that candidate wasn’t the best qualified.
Company rules prohibited managers from making hiring promises. Richard was demoted after an investigation into what he had told the applicant, who was black. Meanwhile, Richard filed an internal ethics complaint, claiming Cingular didn’t hire his recommended candidate due to discrimination.
Cue in another actor in the increasingly complex drama: Richard’s wife started making harassing telephone calls, expressing her anger toward the applicant. Apparently, she was making the calls at Richard’s behest.
Cingular called Richard in for his side of the story and concluded he was lying about the telephone calls. The company fired Richard. He sued, alleging retaliation by Cingular for his internal complaint.
The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the case. It reasoned that Cingular had a legitimate reason for firing Richard: his encouragement of the harassing calls, plus his lying to investigators. (Richard v. Cingular, No. 06-30396, 5th Cir., 2007)