One of the quickest ways to turn an annoying—but perhaps unfounded—discrimination complaint into a winning lawsuit is to react inappropriately.
That’s why it’s critically important for HR professionals to remind managers and supervisors: Don’t comment on pending complaints! Plus, remind them that venting in front of employees can backfire.
No employer likes to hear a worker claim his supervisor broke the law. But an out-of-proportion reaction is likely to spark a retaliation lawsuit. Instead, supervisors and managers should not comment on pending complaints and should refer any questions to the HR office—where employees are trained to remain mum. A simple “That’s confidential” response to inquiries is best.
Recent case: Gregory Dillon received regular promotions and greatat his office. Then he reported to government officials that he suspected fellow employees working with FBI agents on a fugitive task force were submitting false warrant applications to federal judges. His allegations were not well-received.
Several of Dillon’s bosses gave him a hard time, but the reaction of one boss was excessive. He called a meeting and told Dillon and his co-workers the local newspaper had picked up the story and “this will affect the way I treat certain employees in the future. It is too bad it has to be this way—you betrayed my trust and I won’t make the same mistake in the future.”
Eventually, Dillon won a multimillion-dollar verdict against one boss for retaliation, and then sued the boss who said his trust was betrayed. The court allowed that lawsuit to go forward, too—after Dillon claimed he was passed over for a promotion following the first lawsuit. The court said Dillon could use the comments made at the meeting as evidence of later retaliation. (Dillon v. Morano, No. 06-2501, 2nd Cir., 2007)
- Feel free to set generous FMLA notice terms, but rely on the law if you wind up in court
- Office communication: Align practices with employee perceptions
- Offer reinstatement if you make FMLA mistake
- Document deficiencies, don't fret over false accusations
- Have a progressive discipline system? Use it every time