Human Resources News & Insights

Complaining worker fired — did manager retaliate?

When employees make harassment or bias complaints, managers know not to retaliate. But too many make a mistake in the other direction — and avoid taking any action against the employee again, even when it’s well deserved.

When employees complain, does that mean they get a lifetime pass to avoid discipline or termination?

Of course not — they still need to face the consequences of poor performance or bad behavior, just like everyone else. But it does mean managers need to take some extra care when dealing with employees who’ve made legal complaints.

In one recent court case, a part-time employee filed a sexual harassment complaint. Her manager gave the accused co-worker a warning. The employee complained to her boss’s supervisor that more needed to be done, and the accused harasser got a second warning.

Shortly after that, the manager eliminated the employee’s position by combining it with another part-time job. She couldn’t work that many hours, so the other part-timer took the full position and the employee was let go.

She sued for retaliation. The company argued she would’ve lost her job anyway.

But the court ruled that the short time between the employee’s complaint and the termination — plus the fact that there was no documented evidence that the boss had considered combining the two jobs before the complaint was made — was suspicious enough to send the case to trial.

Cite: Magyar v. St. Joseph Regional Medical Center

Where do courts draw the line on retaliation?

In another recent case, an employee filed a complaint about harassment she claimed she witnessed against two of her co-workers.

Several months later, she was terminated. Why? She’d made several costly mistakes in her work. The company had to shrink her department and, based on her previous performance, decided she was the one to let go.

She sued, but the court ruled in favor of the company. The reduction-in-force was thoroughly planned and the woman’s slip-ups were well-documented. Therefore, it was clear she would’ve lost her job even if she didn’t make the harassment complaint.

Cite: Van Horn v. Best Buy Stores, L.P.

Lesson: Document, document, document

What set the companies apart in these two cases?

Answer: Documentation.

Courts look closely at the timing of companies’ decisions — if an employee’s disciplined or fired shortly after filing a complaint, it can be hard to convince a judge the decision was unbiased.

But as the latter case shows, it’s not impossible — as long as the manager keeps strong documentation.

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  • Larry

    There was no indication of the outcome of the first case – only that it went to trial. How can we infer from the information presented that it was a successful defense or not? Based on the info presented I don’t think the company did anything wrong. Yes – the timing may have been poor – but the business decision was relevant enough in my opinion. Documentation had little to do with the differing circumstances of these cases.

  • Andra

    Jessica Magyar (to whom we refer in this opinion using her former last name of Houston) lost her job at Saint Joseph Regional Medical Center (“the Hospital”) after she complained about perceived sexual harassment. She sued the Hospital on the theory that it had violated the anti-retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, 42 U.S.C. § 2000e-3(a). Reasoning that the evidence Houston submitted in response to the Hospital’s summary judgment motion could not support a finding of causation, or in the alternative could not show that the Hospital’s stated motive for terminating her was pretextual, the district court granted summary judgment to the Hospital.

  • Mary

    While it would be interesting to know which way the first case went, as many of us know, if you have to go to trial, you’ve already lost alot. Even if the company prevailed, the time, effort and, especially, the cost would probably have been enough to make them “documentation silly” in the future. Depending upon how much it cost them to defend, win or lose, I imagine they’ll be documenting everything from now on, right down to the bathroom breaks!

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