Bias complaint? Beware ‘helpful’ career advice

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It happens all too often: A supervisor hears that a subordinate wants to file a discrimination complaint and warns that following through might harm the worker’s career. It usually takes the form of a caution that complaining will brand the employee as a “troublemaker” and could cost promotion opportunities.

The supervisor may genuinely believe that, but expressing it is a bad idea. Instead, supervisors should accept complaints with grace—and no commentary.

Otherwise, any subsequent career setbacks may trigger a retaliation lawsuit. And that costs time and money, even if the case is eventually dismissed.

Recent case: Alicia, who is black, filed an internal discrimination complaint and then an EEOC complaint when her employer declined to act.

When Alicia lost out on two promotions, she remembered her supervisor’s comments back when she first filed the internal complaint. The supervisor told her, “You do want to move up the career ladder, right? … I would not go through with this discrimination complaint because if you do, no one will hire you, you will be labeled a troublemaker.” She sued for retaliation, using the comments as proof.

Fortunately for the employer, it could show that for each promotion, it hired someone else who was clearly better qualified or whom it had no choice to promote under established rules.

The court tossed Alicia’s com­­plaint—but only after the em­­ployer had to expend time, money and energy defending itself. (Jack­­­­son v. Board of Equal­­i­­za­­tion, No. 09-1387, ED CA, 2013)

Final note: In supervisory training materials, provide clear and specific guidance on how to re­­­spond to discrimination complaints. There’s just no excuse for making comments like the one in this case. No good can come of it.

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