The Cook County, Ill., Sheriff's Department fired Harriet Rizzo when it discovered that she didn't have a high school diploma as required, and she had lied about it on her job application. But the firing got messy because Rizzo had been on the job for nine years before she was fired. And her termination came soon after she filed a sexual harassment complaint against her supervisor.
The supervisor had made suggestive comments directly to Rizzo and twice told her that he wanted to have sex with her 15-year-old daughter. Although the supervisor's comments were severe enough to create a hostile work environment, a federal appeals court refused to let Rizzo sue because the harassment wasn't based on sex. The supervisor hated Rizzo's husband. She was caught in the cross fire.
Key point: The employer got off the hook in part because the harassing supervisor wasn't involved in the decision to fire her. The department's investigation into education credentials started six months before her complaint. (Rizzo v. Sheahan, No. 00-2494, 7th Cir., 2001)
Advice: Focus on whether misconduct merits discipline when making employment decisions, not on whether the worker engaged in "protected activity," like filing a harassment complaint. Too often, employers pull back on a firing or demotion simply because an employee has filed a lawsuit or engaged in a protected activity, like whistle-blowing.
In fact, failing to take disciplinary action when it's merited under company policy can end up causing more problems. It sets a precedent both for that employee and others, which can lead to more claims of discrimination.