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Investigate—And then explain decision to discipline or not

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Just about every harassment allegation deserves some sort of investigation. After all, that’s the only way to tell what is really happening down in the trenches. But that doesn’t mean each and every accusation should result in discipline or some other tangible action.

The simple truth is that sometimes what someone perceives as harassment is something else—such as a personality conflict. Or the behavior, while perhaps rude and ill-advised, just doesn’t rise to the level of illegal harassment. That’s when HR may want to explain its conclusions and tell the parties concerned to clean up their acts and just get along.

Recent case: Mark Connell and several male co-workers sued the Pittsburgh Veterans Affairs hospital where they worked after a female co-worker allegedly harassed them. But earlier, the co-worker had filed her own internal complaint that the men were harassing her.

The hospital investigated the woman’s claims and found that there had been no harassment. HR did conclude that she was disruptive, to say the least. She frequently threatened to kick both her male and female co-workers using her supposed martial arts talents. She poured a soda over one man’s head and ran away laughing, and threatened to call her co-workers’ spouses and tell them about alleged affairs going on at the hospital. She also sometimes called her female co-workers “fat cows.”

The woman eventually was fired for disrupting the workplace.

But the court tossed out the men’s case. The judge concluded there was no sexual harassment based on gender. This was an “equal opportunity” harasser who annoyed all her co-workers with her antics. (Connell, et al., v. Principi, No. 04-1356, WD PA, 2007)

Final note: Consider discharging a disruptive employee who makes the workplace unpleasant for everyone else around.

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