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Vague complaints not enough to trigger retaliation protection

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

Most discrimination laws include a provision that makes it illegal to retaliate against employees who complain about discrimination. That complaint can be formal, such as a written complaint filed with the EEOC or the U.S. Labor Department. Or it can be informal, such as a call to the company’s HR office. Either way, employees can’t be punished for making good-faith complaints, even if those complaints don’t pan out.

That doesn’t mean that every time an employee complains about a co-worker or incident, he or she has made a good-faith complaint.

To qualify, the substance of the complaint must include some basic information about the nature of the problem or the law the employee thinks the company is violating. Although the worker doesn’t have to state, “I think you are violating Title VII and discriminating on the basis of age,” he or she does have to give some inkling of the nature of the alleged discrimination.

As the following case shows, simply alleging that you have been unfairly treated at work isn’t enough.

Recent case: Teacher Karen Kodl, who is over 40 years old, was transferred to another school after fellow teachers complained about her demeanor and caustic comments. Kodl didn’t seem capable of playing well with others.

Kodl said it was all retaliation for complaining about not being invited to volleyball games and not being selected to coach several sports.

But the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out her case. She never told supervisors that she thought she was excluded from games or passed over for coaching assignments because of her age. Therefore, her employer wasn’t on notice that she claimed discrimination, and couldn’t have retaliated against her. (Kodl v. Board of Education, No. 06-3306, 7th Cir., 2007)

Bottom line: When an employee says he or she has experienced age, sex or some other form of discrimination, warn all supervisors about retaliation. But if the complaint is very general, there’s no need to be hyper-vigilant.

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