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Manager mistakes: 3 key lessons from the courtroom

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in Centerpiece,Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

judge with gavelIt’s always smarter—and less expensive—to learn about employment law from others’ mistakes, rather than your own. Here are three new court decisions that serve up great lessons for any manager:

Lesson 1:  Keep quiet about employee complaints, legal action

The case: A Pennsylvania state trooper filed a discrimination complaint with the EEOC, claiming his transfer was due to racial bias. Soon after, the em­­ployee was ordered to turn in his weapon and undergo a psychiatric exam. The super­­­­visor allegedly said the reason was because of his EEOC complaint. So the trooper shot off another EEOC claim—this one saying he was illegally retaliated against for filing a complaint.

The police argued that the psychiatric exam was already in the works.

Decision: The jury sided with the trooper, saying the supervisor’s comments about the EEOC complaint were evidence that retaliation was the motive for the psychiatric exam. (Hinton v. Pennsylvania State Police, 3rd Cir.)

The lesson: Loose lips will sink a company in court. That’s why supervisors—even if they know their employee has a pending legal or administrative complaint against the company—should never mention it to the employee. Refer all questions about legal claims to HR.

Lesson 2:  Act fast to remove any offensive pictures, graffiti

The case: After a woman was fired from a North Carolina factory, she sued, saying her workplace was a sexually hostile work environment.

The employee said she often saw sexually offensive material posted around the work site. However, when questioned, she admitted the material had been removed before she even got a chance to complain to HR.

Decision: The court sided with the factory and dismissed the case. It said the quick response by supervisors in the factory to remove offensive material proved that the company was serious about preventing sexual harassment. (Williams v. Altec Industries, ED NC)

The lesson: Supervisors need to be proactive in immediately removing any material that could be deemed offensive. The best outcome: Offensive material disappears before anyone has a chance to complain.

Forward to HR any infor­mation about the material you remove. Work with HR to discipline anyone caught posting the materials. Remind employees what’s appropriate in the workplace.

Lesson 3:  Before disciplining, check reviews for consistency

The case: A U.S. government worker was assigned a post in the Virgin Islands. When her year-long assignment was ending, she asked her boss to recommend an additional year (which comes with extra pay to cover higher expenses on the island).

But the supervisor didn’t recommend the extension. Instead, he drafted a memo outlining 25 problems with her job performance. The woman wound up being transferred to a job in Florida.

She sued, saying that sex discrimination was the main reason for the transfer. Her proof? She said the same supervisor who criticized her performance had praised her profusely in her most recent evaluation.

Decision: The court sent the case to trial, saying the inconsistency between the manager’s actions and his earlier praise of the employee were possible evidence of discrimination. A jury will decide. (Sala v. Hawk, 3rd Cir.)

The lesson: Before you hit an em­­ployee with discipline or termination, review his or her past performance reviews and documented warnings and feedback. If that printed praise is inconsistent from your current action, a court will want to know why.

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