Employers often get into trouble when they punish someone who has filed an internal harassment or discrimination complaint.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t discipline employees for legitimate reasons just because they filed an unrelated complaint. The key is being able to show a good reason for your actions. Be prepared to show you would have imposed the same discipline on any employee.
Recent case: Debra McKnight performed her job well, but had a disruptive personality. At one point, she complained that a co-worker had brushed up against her buttocks. She said that was sexual harassment.
The employer investigated but concluded there had been no harassment. Still, it established a new policy prohibiting employees from touching each other at work. Then McKnight and the man she had accused of harassment had an argument during which they struck each other with rolled-up calendars. fired both, telling them, “Your continued employment threatens the production and morale” of the workplace.
McKnight sued, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.
The court tossed out the case, concluding that there had been no sexual harassment or retaliation. It said the company had a perfectly legitimate reason for firing McKnight—she was disruptive and insubordinate. (McKnight v. Trinity River Authority, No. 3:07-CV-2107, ND TX, 2009)
Final note: It is always tricky to fire someone shortly after he or she files an internal complaint. Consult counsel before doing so.
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- Don't court lawsuit by allowing early clock-ins
- Sick leave and FMLA: Should you call off your call-in policy?
- Beware discipline immediately after complaint
- When deciding on employee discipline, you don't have to be absolutely right--just fair