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Employee sounds threatening during hearing? OK to suspend while you investigate

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Generally, employers shouldn’t react to anything an employee says during an EEOC hearing. That’s because you don’t want to face a retaliation complaint for participating in the hearing. However, there are practical limits to what employers have to tolerate.

Recent case: Paul St. John was born in Scotland and accused his employer, the U.S. Postal Service, of national-origin discrimination. During an EEOC hearing on his complaint, St. John testified that when he was discriminated against, he said that he “could have throttled” his boss and that he “could kill” him.

The next day, the Postal Service, which is quite sensitive to employee threats of violence, assembled its threat assessment team and determined that it should pull St. John in for an investigation.

It called him from his appointed route and asked questions about his testimony. St. John apologized for his “unfortunate” choice of words, and explained he never intended to make a threat or to do anyone any harm. The post office temporarily suspended St. John for the remainder of his shift while managers assessed whether he was a risk. They concluded he wasn’t and rescinded the suspension several hours later.

Still, St. John added retaliation to his lawsuit.

But the court rejected that claim, reasoning that the post office was acting reasonably when it investigated and wasn’t motivated by retaliation. (St. John v. Postmaster General No. 11-1855, 3rd Cir., 2012)

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