Some employees may not realize it, but filing an internal discrimination or harassment complaint doesn’t create immunity to legitimate, unrelated discipline. If you carefully document every step of the disciplinary process and act fairly and impartially, you’ll rarely find yourself in legal trouble. Just make sure you investigate and resolve the disciplined employee’s complaints, too.
Recent case: Angela, Linda and Brandee were pharmaceutical sales reps for a biomedical firm. As is traditional in the pharmaceutical business, they visited doctors’ offices to tout their products. Sometimes, their supervisor would ride along to critique their performance. That’s also a common practice in the industry.
All three women lodged complaints about those ride-alongs, accusing the supervisor of sexual harassment in various forms. One alleged the man made offensive comments about his ability to distinguish women’s behinds by race and ethnicity. Another said he badgered her about her plans to become pregnant. The third said the supervisor criticized a receptionist at a medical office as a “withered” old lady who was “cranky” and “menopausal.”
HR investigated and ordered the supervisor to apologize. He apparently never made offensive comments again.
But the women, one by one, were placed on performance improvement plans and eventually fired. They sued, alleging harassment and retaliation.
The court said they had not been harassed because their complaints were quickly resolved when they alerted HR about the problem. Theirwere also legitimate discipline based on objective standards, applied evenly across the board. Their cases were dismissed. (Gonzales, et al., v. Organogenesis, SD CA, 2017)
Final note: The employer used cold, hard numbers to justify the terminations. Plus, the supervisor accused of harassment wasn’t part of the final decision, though he had managed the improvement plans.