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Not every hotline call is protected activity

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Many employers have a hotline that employees can call to report discrimination, harassment or other workplace problems. It’s a good idea to have such a system because it may alert you to problems you otherwise wouldn’t be aware were brewing. That gives you a chance to fix things before they get out of hand.

Generally, employees who call a hotline are protected against retaliation because the call itself is “protected activity.” But that’s not always the case.

Calls unrelated to some form of discrimination covered by major employment laws don’t confer protection. For example, a call about run-of-the-mill workplace problems probably isn’t protected.

Recent case: Tracy, who is black, called the company hotline after his supervisor yelled at him, accused him of damaging a piece of equipment called a tank jacket and cursed at him. Tracy denied damaging the jacket.

Shortly after the call, Tracy was transferred from the day shift to the night shift. He wasn’t happy there and applied for several promotions.

When he wasn’t promoted, Tracy sued, alleging that the shift change and the denied promotions were retaliation for calling the hotline.

He didn’t get very far with the argument. The court concluded that the call hadn’t reported any kind of discrimination or harassment covered by Title VII or similar laws. It was just a general workplace complaint. It wasn’t protected activity, and therefore there was no illegal retaliation. (Mitchell v. UTLX, No. 13-31142, 5th Cir., 2014)

Final note: Tracy lost on the promotion claim for another reason too. The employer required all employees applying for the promotion to pass a math test. Tracy admitted he had failed it. That was enough on its own to sink that claim.

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