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There’s protected activity, then there’s harassment

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in Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

When employees think they are working in a hostile environment, emotions often run high. Sometimes they even boil over. If an employee believes he is working under intolerable conditions, he may strike back with a harassment campaign of his own.

Anonymous letters, e-mails and other unconventional forms of communication may amount to reverse harassment—and you don’t have to tolerate it. As long as you can reasonably trace the origins of the communications to the employee who is responsible for them, you should be able to punish the behavior without being accused of retaliation or illegal discrimination.

Recent case: Glenn Perry, who is black, worked as a police officer at Fort Dix. From Day One, Perry claimed management was out to harass him because of his race. He filed an EEOC complaint, pointing to a series of professional slights and several isolated instances of overheard racist comments as proof of discrimination.

But Perry didn’t stop after going through official channels. Management claimed he also slipped a long, anonymous complaint letter into his supervisor’s office mailbox. The letter included crude references to sexual activity and called the supervisor a “sambo.”

Because video surveillance of the mailbox area showed Perry nearby at about the time the letter showed up, management assumed he was the culprit and fired him. Perry sued for retaliation and discrimination.

But the court said management had a legitimate reason to fire him: Management believed Perry had harassed his own supervisor. The court said that’s not retaliation. It also concluded that Perry hadn’t worked in a hostile environment because the slurs were not pervasive or severe. The court dismissed Perry’s case. (Perry v. Harvey, No. 06-5386, DC NJ, 2008)

Final note: There’s a huge difference between making a legitimate discrimination complaint and harassing co-workers or supervisors. You don’t have to put up with bad behavior.

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