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A case study in how NOT to handle ‘Frivolous’ complaints

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

You and the supervisors at your organization may already know how to handle a sexual harassment complaint that appears genuine. But what should you do when you seriously doubt that a claim is legit?

Don’t lose your temper or tell the complaining employee that she’s wasting your time. If you do, you could end up shooting yourself in the foot.

Best bet: Treat every case seriously and investigate all allegations. If you brush one off or, worse, threaten the employee with retaliation, you may create a lawsuit where none was possible except for your behavior.

Recent case: Michelle Hinton told management that a co-worker asked her in Spanish to kiss him, touched her knee and otherwise made her uncomfortable.

At a meeting, the co-worker said he wasn’t harassing her but would stop kidding around. Management thought that was the end of it.

But Hinton obtained a copy of management’s notes of the meeting, which indicated that it thought Hinton was exaggerating her complaints. She stormed into the manager’s office and a shouting match ensured. The manager told Hinton she was “wasting their time,” was “immature” and would be written up if she didn’t stop talking about the alleged harassment.

Hinton talked to an attorney, who faxed a complaint alleging harassment and retaliation to the state job-bias agency, with a copy to her employer. When Hinton returned to work, they immediately fired her.

At trial, she dropped her sexual harassment claim, and a jury awarded her $10,000 in back pay on the retaliation claim. (Hinton v. Supervision International, No. 5D05-2522, Court of Appeals of Florida, Fifth District, 2006)

Final tip: Had the company simply handled the case calmly, it would have gone away. Hinton didn’t have a sexual harassment case, but the company ended up creating a retaliation case.  

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