It’s illegal to retaliate against employees for complaining about sex discrimination or harassment.
A crucial point: The employee’s initial complaint doesn’t have to pan out, either. It’s enough that the employee reasonably believed in good faith that she was being discriminated against.
Recent case: Julia was hired as a planner to assist with a nuclear plant outage and was the only woman in her department. After just a few weeks on the job, she complained the company’s staffing representative that her male site superintendent treated her in a “condescending and bullying” fashion because of her gender and that he seemed to have a problem with women.
Julia said that he belittled her in front of her male peers and ignored her when she arrived at the work site.
The company then added a new supervisor between Julia and the supervisor she alleged was singling her out because of her sex. She told that supervisor about her experiences. Shortly after, the company launched an investigation.
A few weeks later, Julia was fired. She went to the EEOC, which took up the case on her behalf and sued the employer for retaliation.
The company argued that what she had described was neither harassment nor sex discrimination. It asked to have the case dismissed.
The court refused. It said that as long as Julia complained in good faith, she was protected from retaliation. And the fact that the employer investigated her claim helped support the notion she believed she was discriminated against. (EEOC v. Newport News Industrial Corporation, No. 7:13-CV-203, ED NC, 2014)
Final note: This does put employers in a difficult position. Ignore a complaint and you may be liable if it turns out to be legitimate. Investigate and the employee can argue she acted in good faith.