A new Supreme Court ruling sends managers a message about conducting complaint investigations: Watch how employees serving as witnesses are treated — or the company could be hit with a retaliation claim.
The background of the case:
Vicky Crawford worked for the Metropolitan School District in Nashville, TN. One of her co-workers filed a sexual harassment complaint against their supervisor.
As part of the ensuing investigation, Crawford was asked if she’d ever witnessed any harassment. She said, yes, she’d seen the supervisor harass other employees — and was harassed herself on several occasions. She provided a list of inappropriate sexual comments the supervisor had said to her during her tenure.
Despite that testimony, the alleged harasser was never fired or disciplined. Shortly after the investigation, Crawford was fired — the school district claimed she’d been embezzling.
She sued, claiming the embezzlement allegations against her were false and she was really fired in retaliation for her comments during the investigation.
Protection for witnesses?
Two lower courts ruled against Crawford, stating that Title VII’s anti-retaliation provisions only apply to employees who file their own discrimination claims or participate in formal investigations by the EEOC.
But the Supreme Court disagreed. Employees are protected from retaliation whenever they “oppose” an employer’s unlawful actions — and, according to the Court, that includes an employee who participates in an internal investigation.
The lesson for managers: Be cautious when dealing with any employees involved in a complaint investigation. Employees who confirm allegations of harassment or discrimination can’t be treated differently than those who don’t.
And, of course, it’s key to document all performance or behavioral issues regarding those employees in case the company has to fight future retaliation claims.
Cite: Crawford v. Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tennessee