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You Can Issue ‘Gag Order’ While Investigating Complaint

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

Ran in HR Weekly e-letter-- June 19, 2007 issue (free article)

Nothing disrupts a workplace like unbridled rumors, especially when it's about a sexual harassment complaint. Like a game of "telephone," the incident inevitably becomes distorted as word spreads. Such chatter can make it hard to carry out a fair and impartial investigation.

For that reason, you can—and should—be proactive about curbing idle speculation while your organization investigates. As the following case shows, you can punish employees who insist on feeding the rumor mill so long as you've made it clear that you're handling the complaint.

While you should never dissuade employees from reporting harassment, you can insist that they get back to work after making the report.

Recent case: Betty Jean Block, a Kelly Services temp employee at an ExxonMobil refinery, heard from co-workers about alleged sexual harassment they were experiencing. Block reported this to her temporary boss at Exxon, who told her that he'd bring the matter to the attention of those who needed to know.

But Block didn't leave things alone. She continued to discuss the allegations with other employees, even after being told to stop.

When her temp agency found out, it pulled Block from the assignment. She sued, alleging retaliation for reporting harassment.

The 5th Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her suit, saying that employees can't be instructed to ignore harassment, but once they report such conduct, they can be told to let the appropriate people handle it. (Block v. Kelly Services, et al., No. 05-20978, 5th Cir., 2006)  

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