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Charges might be wrong? Beware retaliation

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

An employer has learned the hard way that taking draconian action against an employee who might have filed false harassment charges usually isn’t a good idea.

Punishing the complainer can pave the way for a retaliation lawsuit.

In one recent case, the EEOC itself championed the cause of an employee who may or may not have experienced harassment, but went ahead and reported it anyway. She was fired for her trouble.

On the docket: Here’s what allegedly happened. An unnamed woman worked for HP Pelzer at its Athens, Tenn., automobile parts plant. Pelzer has a policy that prohibits employees from purposely falsifying harassment claims.

The woman had first complained to a plant manager that a member of the facility’s HR department had made unwelcome comments that she believed amounted to sexual harassment.

When the plant manager failed to investigate, the woman went higher up the chain of command. This time, she got action in the form of an investigation, which in the end proved inconclusive.

The plant manager then allegedly fired the woman for violating the policy against making false accusations.

The EEOC filed suit after concluding that the policy had a chilling effect on employees who might want to raise potential harassment in the workplace, but would be afraid they could be punished for doing so.

An EEOC statement on the lawsuit said, “[Management] officials may not retaliate against employees for their reasonable good-faith belief that the company subjected them to harassment in the workplace.”

In other words, an employee can be wrong about whether something may legally amount to harassment. However, she can’t be punished for reporting what she genuinely believed was unlawful. (EEOC v. HP Pelzer Automotive Systems, No. 1:17-CV-00031, E.D. Tenn. 2017)

The EEOC recently proposed new enforcement guidance on harassment and is accepting public comments until March 21. Read it at www.regulations.gov/docket?D=EEOC-2016-0009. Read the latest retaliation guidance at www.eeoc.gov/laws/guidance/retaliation-guidance.cfm.

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