How HR handles discrimination complaints can mean the difference between winning and losing lawsuits. Handle a complaint well—by responding quickly and fairly and correcting any problems you may find—and a court will probably dismiss the case.
But if HR doesn’t give the case the dignity or diligence it deserves, chances are the organization will end up losing the lawsuit. It may even mean a jury will award punitive damages on top of any actual damages.
The key lies in using good faith when checking out allegations of discrimination. Do not automatically assume that either party is correct. Keep an open mind and conduct an impartial investigation, giving everyone a chance to present his or her version of events.
Recent case: Edward Heaton, who is part Hispanic, claimed a union steward called him a derogatory name based on his ethnicity and told co-workers he would not want his daughter marrying a “spic.”
Heaton complained to the HR office by calling the person identified as the “complaint contact” person. The union steward resigned, and the case seemed resolved.
Then Heaton suspected retaliation. For example, crew members assigned to his work team were pulled, making it hard for Heaton to complete jobs. Then as work slowed down, the company forced Heaton to choose between a demotion and a temporary layoff. When he chose the layoff, the company took his equipment away—unlike others who had been laid off.
Heaton again complained to the HR office. This time, nothing happened. The HR contact simply accepted the supervisor’s assurance that there was no retaliation; the contact didn’t check out any of the underlying allegations.
Heaton sued, and a jury awarded him more than $137,000 in compensation, $73,000 for emotional distress and another $25,000 in punitive damages.
The 8th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn the award, concluding that there was plenty of evidence that the second HR investigation was not made in good faith. (Heaton v. The Weitz Company, No. 07-2581, 8th Cir., 2008)
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