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No need to investigate harassment complaints clearly not covered by anti-discrimination laws

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s a reminder for harried and overworked HR professionals: Even if your anti-harassment policy states that you will investigate all harassment complaints, you don’t have to drop everything to chase down clearly meritless allegations.

Recent case: Antonia went to work for Newton Township and became friends with a supervisor and co-worker. Both were married (not to each other) and Antonia sometimes joined them for drinks. After a while, Antonia suspected the two were having an affair and told them she didn’t feel right about hanging out with them.

Soon after, Antonia claimed the two began treating her differently. She eventually went to HR and said she was being treated poorly. She also accused the supervisor and co-worker of leaving work during their shifts. She didn’t mention her suspicion they were having an affair or any other potentially harassing conduct.

HR didn’t investigate and Antonia sued, alleging retaliation and a hostile work environment.

The 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed the case. It reasoned that the employer didn’t have to investigate every complaint, especially when the complaint didn’t raise any particular red flags like race, age or sexual har­­assment. (Garcia v. Newton Town­­ship, et al., No. 11-3190, 3rd Cir., 2012)

Final note: Essentially, the appeals court’s decision acknowledged that many workplace issues are merely internal matters, best left to em­­ployers to resolve. Courts don’t want to be in the business of HR management. Interfering in a case like this would essentially turn the court into the functional equivalent of an HR department.

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