When employee complains, you must investigate — but you can insist on a civilized complaint

Sure, everyone knows that employees who make a good-faith complaint alleging some form of discrimination are protected from retaliation. By now, most managers and supervisors also understand that retaliation can be anything that would dissuade a reasonable employee from complaining in the first place.

But that doesn’t mean that no one can criticize the employee for making the complaint in a way that’s out of line. If he or she is discourteous, you can and should put an end to the disruptive behavior.

Just make sure that when you do demand better behavior, you also investigate the underlying discrimination claim, just as you would any other similar complaint.

Recent case: Karem Al-Chokhachi is an Iraqi-American Muslim who worked for the California Department of Transportation. His supervisor was Sameer Haddadeen, a Jordanian-American Christian.

Over the years, the two had political disagreements about Saddam Hussein and his rule over Iraq. Al-Chokhachi complained to management about several comments Haddadeen had made, and the department allowed him to transfer to another position. Eventually, however, Haddadeen became his supervisor again.

MGR Handbook D

Haddadeen was known as a strict boss who wanted all his subordinates at their desks when their shifts began, ready to work. He frequently stopped by to make sure everyone was tending to business. At the beginning of one shift, he believed Al-Chokhachi was late and sent an e-mail to that effect.

Al-Chokhachi replied with an e-mail of his own, calling his supervisor’s actions retaliation for the years-earlier conflict and alleging that Haddadeen was lying.

Haddadeen responded by writing “At about 8:30 this morning, I stopped by your workstation to talk to you … You were not at your workstation. However, if you disagree with my observation, you need to understand that there are proper and professional means of expressing … concerns in the workplace. Your use of words like ‘lies’ and ‘false’ to describe my observation is unprofessional, improper and discourteous toward me and will not be tolerated.”

Al-Chokhachi sued, claiming the disciplinary threat was retaliation for alleging discrimination.

The court, however, dismissed the lawsuit. It reasoned that no one threatened to punish Al-Chokhachi for complaining. Instead, Haddadeen had threatened to discipline him for the unprofessional, improper and discourteous manner in which he complained.

The court even noted that Haddadeen had responded with restraint, given Al-Chokhachi’s accusations of dishonesty and malfeasance. (Al-Chokhachi v. California Department of Transportation, No. B216414, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd District, 2010)

Handling volatile complaints

When an employee complains about unfair treatment, be sure to separate the message from the way the message was delivered. If an employee angrily confronts management about alleged discrimination or retaliation, try to calm him down long enough to understand the underlying factual allegations. Then handle the complaint as you would any other—by conducting an impartial and thorough investigation.

At the same time, explain to the employee that he must act in a professional manner. You can punish the employee if you would otherwise do so for similar conduct.

Of course, if you verify the underlying discrimination actually occurred, fix that, too.