Employees who suffer reprisals after complaining about possible discrimination or harassment can sue for retaliation. But they can do so only if they can show they “engaged in protected activity”—that is, that they told their employer about the alleged discrimination or harassment.
Some employers seem to believe only formal EEOC or other agency complaints count as protected activity. Wrong!
Even something as simple and informal as an employee saying, “Stop it!” to a supervisor who is allegedly harassing her may amount to protected activity. Then, any punishment the employee is hit with (e.g., discharge, demotion, shift changes, etc.) can be used to show retaliation.
Recent case: Katherine Murphy worked for the city of Aventura as a school principal. She claimed that the city manager, who essentially was her supervisor, sexually harassed her. Murphy said the city manager used sexually explicit language, directed vulgar and obscene comments at her and created a hostile environment. She said she told him to stop the behavior and also reported the comments to others in . Then the city fired her.
Murphy sued, alleging her termination was in retaliation for her complaint. The city asked the court to dismiss the case because Murphy didn’t file an EEOC complaint or a formal internal complaint before she was fired.
But the court said she didn’t have to. All she needed to do was let management know she thought she was being harassed—which she did when she told the city manager to stop the behavior she considered harassment. (Murphy v. City of Aventura, No. 08-20603, SD FL, 2008)
Final note: Now is a good time to remind employees that you take discrimination and harassment seriously. If you haven’t distributed your policy recently, renew your efforts to let employees know how and where to report problems.
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