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Handle ‘uncooperative’ complainer with care

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees who complain they’re being discriminated against sometimes seem less than cooperative once you start investigating their claims. If that happens, don’t be too quick to discipline that employee for hindering your fact-finding effort.

Here’s why: Let’s say you conclude that the employee hadn’t really suffered discrimination and tell him he has no case. You’d think that would end the matter. But if you then punish the employee for not cooperating, you could end up facing a retaliation lawsuit.

The court may well agree with you that there was no underlying discrimination, but that won’t stop the lawsuit from going forward—charging that the punishment was retaliation for bringing the original complaint.

Recent case: Eddie Miller, who is black, worked for PNC Bank. Although he won several sales awards, his supervisor claimed he wasn’t doing his job well. At one point, she allegedly told Miller that he should just quit. Later, Miller claimed his supervisor falsely accused him of stealing a co-worker’s customer.

Miller filed an internal discrimination complaint. PNC started an investigation, and Miller asked to be able to respond to questions in writing. PNC then decided Miller wasn’t cooperating and fired him. It said he violated the bank’s honesty rules by not helping out during the investigation.

Miller sued, alleging discrimination and retaliation. The court said there was no evidence he had been discriminated against based on race.

On the other hand, it did say he might have a retaliation case, since he wouldn’t have been fired if he hadn’t complained in the first place. In other words, if his complaint hadn’t launched an investigation, he couldn’t have been accused of not cooperating with that investigation. (Miller v. PNC Bank, No. 1:08-CV-492, SD OH, 2009)

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