Wal-Mart employee Stephanie Beckel complained to a general manager that her supervisor was sexually harassing her. When the general manager told her not to discuss the matter with anyone but himself and other managers, she thought that meant that she shouldn't bring it up with a lawyer, either.
When she was fired more than a year later for unrelated reasons, she sued. But because Title VII requires her to file her lawsuit within 300 days, the court tossed out her case.
She appealed, arguing that Wal-Mart essentially threatened to retaliate against her if she filed a lawsuit by telling her to keep quiet, and that delay effectively prevented her from filing on time.
But the appeals court again dismissed her claim. To win extra time to file, the court said, she would have to prove that Wal-Mart took deliberate steps to prevent her from filing on time. That didn't happen. And the court said the time limit under Title VII can't be extended because of retaliation; that would circumvent the statute of limitations.
The court also said that a perceived retaliation threat would give most people an even greater incentive to sue, not less, because it would provide a second claim on top of the original one. (Beckel v. Wal-Mart Assocs. Inc., No. 02-1208, 7th Cir., 2002)
Advice: Retaliation is often in the eye of the beholder. The court considered this a case of misunderstanding, at most. But your best move is to prevent getting caught up in a legal squabble about retaliation in the first place.
The fewer people who know about an employee's complaint, the smaller the chances that someone will retaliate against the complainer. So it's best to contain news about the complaint to a need-to-know basis.
However, you never want to make it seem that a complaint is being swept under the rug. That's why it's vital to have a strong anti-harassment policy and reporting procedures, followed up by a prompt investigation and conclusion of any complaints. Create a clear paper trail of all your actions, it's your best defense when things go wrong.