Timing is everything, especially when it comes to retaliation. That’s why it’s crucial for supervisors and managers to understand: Once an employee has filed a complaint, don’t suddenly start enforcing rules you let slide before. If you do, the likely result will be a retaliation lawsuit.
Recent case: Roseanne MacMaster worked in the sanitation department for the city of Rochester for many years. She had a history of insubordination and poor work performance. However, her supervisors never took serious disciplinary action against her.
That all changed after MacMaster accused one of her supervisors of sexual harassment. She said that he looked at her funny, sometimes winked at her and otherwise made her feel uncomfortable. She filed an internal complaint.
Within days, she was told not to park where she had previously parked. This sparked an argument with the supervisor, and MacMaster got physically ill, vomiting in the restroom. She then clocked out despite instructions to “get back to work.” She was then fired for insubordination, as well as for other unrelated work problems.
She fired back with a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit. The court said she hadn’t been sexually harassed—the behavior she complained about might have been boorish, but it didn’t rise to the level of harassment. However, the court let the retaliation claim go forward, reasoning that the timing was suspect. (MacMaster v. City of Rochester, No. 05-CV-6507, WD NY, 2007)
Final note: Tell supervisors and managers: After an employee files a harassment claim, the HR office must approve, in advance, any discipline or change in the rules. Don’t impose discipline until after HR has conducted an independent investigation. Those steps may prevent some retaliation.