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Worker complained of bias? Discipline with care

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

Employees who complain about alleged discrimination are protected from retaliation for doing so, even if it turns out that their discrimination claims don’t hold water. The idea is that employees shouldn’t have to fear reprisal if they complain internally about discrimination or go to the EEOC.

If one of your employees files a discrimination complaint, be careful how you discipline him for any workplace rule-breaking.

While you certainly can discipline him for legitimate reasons, don’t do anything that smacks of punishment for complaining about bias. In the following case, when an employee cooperated with an internal discrimination probe, his supervisor disciplined him for conduct that had taken place months earlier. That’s dangerous.

Recent case: Thomas Ridley, who is black, was a salesperson for Sears Home Improvement Products. Each morning, he and other salespeople received names of customers to contact. Ridley believed he received sales leads only for customers living in poorer neighborhoods—which he said resulted in fewer sales and, therefore, lower commissions.

Unknown to his supervisors, Ridley called the company hotline and complained, spurring an investigation.

Then, after Ridley told investigators he believed his boss was discriminating against him, he found himself placed on a performance improvement plan by his supervisor. The alleged reason was that, four months earlier, Ridley had referred a customer for granite countertops to a vendor other than Sears.

He sued for discrimination and retaliation. He lost the discrimination claim because Sears was able to show the supervisor distributed all leads equally and that Ridley didn’t get more than his fair share of poor leads.

But the court said the timing of the improvement plan was suspicious, since it was based on past conduct. It ordered a retaliation trial. (Ridley v. Sears, No. 6:08-CV-749, MD FL, 2009)

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