3 Million Reasons Not to ‘Get Revenge’ on Complaining Employees

Do your supervisors know it’s illegal to lash out at or get revenge on employees who voice legal complaints? While race discrimination has historically been the most popular employee discrimination claim with the EEOC, retaliation took over the top spot last year. A $3 million jury verdict this week shows how America is becoming Retaliation Nation …

Case in Point: Jennifer McInerney worked as a United Airlines ramp supervisor at Denver International Airport. The physically demanding job involved monitoring aircraft loading, unloading fueling and de-icing at multiple gates. When she got pregnant and started having health problems, in part related to the summer heat, she requested a transfer to a desk job. Her request was denied and two men were given the desk jobs instead.

McInerney started having pregnancy complications and took leave under the Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA). Eventually her baby boy was born premature with serious heart and lung problems.

McInerney requested extended unpaid leave to care for her newborn disabled child. Initially United granted her an additional month but then denied the leave, claiming it could not cover the work schedule without her.

McInerney voiced a complaint of sex discrimination to her manager, saying she was denied the leave, “because I’m a woman on the ramp, and I just had a disabled child.” No one investigated her complaint. United then terminated her for not showing up at work. 

HR Memos D

McInerney sued United, claiming it retaliated against her for her sex discrimination claim. A jury agreed, returning a $3 million dollar verdict. United appealed, claiming it consistently applied its absenteeism policy and McInerney was a “no show.” On April 11, the appellate court smelled retaliation and showed United the runway out of court. (McInerney v. United Air Lines, 10th Cir., 4/11/11)

3 Lessons Learned…Without Going to Court

1. Investigate all chirps. Organizations MUST investigate all chirpings of discrimination, harassment and retaliation no matter if only one sentence is made by an employee. If they claim foul play, you must start an investigation.

2. Have a heart. McInerney went out on FMLA leave with liver and kidney failure and fluid in her lungs. Her son was born disabled. She asked for an extended unpaid leave of absence which the company had granted to others in the past. Claiming the schedule wouldn’t allow it was cold hearted and juries don’t like cold hearts.

3. Use your retaliation stopwatch. Start your timer when the employee chirps discrimination and stop the watch when you take an adverse employment action against the employee. If there’s not more than nine months of distance between the two events, the court may determine a connection and find you engaged in retaliation.