Fire insubordinate worker, despite complaint

Employees who complain about discrimination or harassment are protected from retaliation. But some of them mistakenly believe that complaining makes them invincible. That’s not true.

Employers can discipline any employee who deserves it—including those who have complained—as long as the rules are applied fairly.

So, for example, if an employee who has complained about bias is insubordinate, feel free to discipline her. Courts routinely support an employer’s right to expect employees to follow directions. As the following case shows, even one act of insubordination can justify discharge.

Recent case: Dwonka Compton, who is black, worked as a credit and special orders coordinator at a Lowe’s home improvement store in Belleville. When she took the job, she received a copy of the employee handbook, which clearly set out insubordination as a firing offense.

Within three months, Compton began complaining that her supervisor treated her unfairly. At one point, she also reported that he had used a derogatory term while speaking with her husband.

Two months later, Compton, who was pregnant, arrived at work one day to learn that someone had spilled acid on the floor the night before. The fire department had responded and given the all-clear before Compton’s shift started. Nevertheless, she told her manager that she was going home because she was afraid the spill would harm her unborn child. Lowe’s fired her for insubordination.

Compton sued, alleging her discharge was retaliation for her earlier complaints.

The court disagreed. It said that this was a classic case of insubordination that Compton knew would result in discharge. No other Lowe’s employee—pregnant or not—had walked off the job without being fired. The court said it was clear her termination was the result of insubordination, not retaliation. (Compton v. Lowe’s, No. 08-CV-809, SD IL, 2011)