Play it straight: When employee’s complaints become irrational, stick with sound procedures

After a discrimination complaint has been found to be without merit, most reasonable employees accept their employer’s conclusions and go back to doing their jobs. But some become bitter, suspecting that HR and management are out to get them and interpreting every subsequent interaction as evidence of a hostile conspiracy.

When this happens, the worst thing you can do is play into the fear. It will only make matters worse.

Instead, treat the employee the same as you would any other employee—and recognize that he may sue.

Recent case: Mehdi Moini, who is of Middle Eastern descent, worked as an engineering professor at the University of Texas. Moini thought he was being unfairly singled out for criticism. He complained about national-origin discrimination that he believed was rooted in prejudice following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

University management concluded that Moini wasn’t the victim of discrimination.

That didn’t satisfy Moini, who started cataloging incidents he said created a hostile work environment. For example, he claimed that files had been deleted from his office computer and that documents he kept in his office disappeared.

He also claimed the university was spying on him. When teaching in a classroom outfitted with video equipment, he said he could hear the cameras running and thought this meant supervisors were secretly filming him.

Moini also said his supervisor and co-workers were following him around the university campus. But he added that others tailed him at home. He complained about four middle-aged men he saw in a car parked near his home. Although he wasn’t able to identify them or link them to anyone at the university, Moini claimed the men were watching him.

All this, Moini claimed, amounted to harassment and created a hostile work environment.

Eventually, the university refused to renew Moini’s contract, he lost his job and he sued for discrimination.

The court tossed out his case. It said Moini couldn’t prove any surveillance took place and couldn’t connect any alleged surveillance to anyone at the university. His office-tampering claims weren’t persuasive either. He never tied the university to the incidents, and admitted that his office door wasn’t always locked. Anyone, including students, could have entered. (Moini v. University of Texas at Austin, No. A-10-CA-180, WD TX, 2011)

Final note: Even if an employee makes allegations that seem paranoid and irrational, don’t tell him so. That just opens up the possibility of a perceived-as-disabled ADA lawsuit. Plus, such accusations may fuel the employee’s apparent paranoia.

On the other hand, you do have an obligation to ensure workplace safety. If you think an employee may be a danger to himself or others, contact your attorney and your employee assistance program for guidance. They can help you decide how to tackle a potentially dangerous situation without raising the risk of litigation.