Q. We have an employee who has a history of clashing with others at work. Her supervisors have addressed this with her many times. Recently, she sent an e-mail that was unprofessional and insulting to co-workers. If we fire her, could she successfully sue us for sex discrimination or harassment?
A. An employer certainly has the right to establish policies and rules regulating employee workplace behavior—as long as those policies are neutral and equally enforced.
As the employer, you must investigate whether there are any facts of this employee’s situation that might be troublesome or that could lead her to sue you.
I recently ran across a case that you might find both interesting and disturbing. An employee alleged that she had sent a memorandum to complaining that the company wasn’t giving enough responsibility to female employees. She alleged that before she was fired, the CEO told her she was not “being sufficiently sweet” in dealing with co-workers. Under those scant facts, the court ruled that the employee may have been retaliated against because of her memo, and that the statement of the CEO might indicate an illegal bias.
The court specifically ruled it was up to a jury to decide whether the CEO’s statement indicated that he held stereotypical beliefs about women that led him to believe that this particular woman was therefore an unsatisfactory employee.
Once an employee who enjoys protected status complains about something, there exists a suspicion that any unfavorable treatment that follows is retaliatory or discriminatory in nature. Employers, beware!