Beware firing for ‘spreading rumors’ about bias

Bosses may not like it, but em­­ployees have the right to complain about their working conditions. Characterizing those complaints as unfounded gossip doesn’t change that—and should never be a reason for termination unless you can absolutely prove that the employee knowingly made false statements.

Recent case: Zuku worked for an auto parts distributor and hurt his back while retrieving a part from a shelf. He took workers’ compensation leave.

Zuku is a black man from Africa, and speaks with an accent. He claimed his supervisor often made fun of the way he spoke, telling him, “We speak English here.” Zuku complained to management about the comments and claimed that black employees were not treated as well as white employees. He made similar complaints to the EEOC.

When he was fired, he sued, alleging that he had been terminated in retaliation for engaging in protected activity.

At the meeting during which he got his termination notice, his supervisor allegedly stated that he was being fired for “spreading rumors” about discrimination that, in fact, wasn’t taking place.

The court said that the comment on spreading rumors was direct evidence that his complaints motivated his discharge. In other words, the comments helped prove that he was fired for raising discrimination issues with his supervisors as well as the EEOC. (Yalley v. Ozark Automotive Distributors, No. 11-1961, DC MN, 2013)