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If employee makes threats, discipline isn’t retaliation

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in Employment Law,Human Resources

You’ve done everything right. You have a solid anti-harassment and discrimination policy, a simple and effective complaint process and you strive to fairly, completely and quickly resolve complaints. But what do you do when the employee who complained doesn’t like the results and blows up?

The key is to respond as calmly and rationally as possible—with appropriate and measured discipline if the situation merits. For example, it’s not retaliation to discipline an employee who threatens to take matters into her own hands.

Recent case: Erma McCoy, who is black, was a police officer. She filed an internal complaint against a white co-worker. She alleged he was harassing her because of her race and sex. She said he came into her office twice, threw wadded-up paper in her face and waited for her to react.

An investigation concluded that there was no racial or sexual component to the co-worker’s actions. The police department said they should both stop workplace “horseplay.” That conclusion didn’t sit well with McCoy, who started crying uncontrollably. She declared that she knew the investigation would turn out this way and “that’s the reason we have violence in the workplace.” She said if the department wasn’t going to take her complaint seriously, then she was going to “take care of it.”

The department told McCoy to turn in her gun, and she went on leave pending a medical examination. She eventually retired instead and filed a retaliation lawsuit.

But the court tossed out her case. It reasoned that the department wasn’t retaliating against her for filing the original complaint, but was acting reasonably in response to her perceived workplace threats. (McCoy v. City of Shreveport, No. 06-30453, 5th Cir., 2007)

Final note: Placing someone on paid leave could be retaliation in some cases—if the discipline might have dissuaded a reasonable person from filing the initial complaint. So could removing an officer’s gun and demanding her badge. It all depends on the circumstances. In this case, it was pretty clear the department had a good reason for its actions.

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