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Handling False Complaints of Discrimination or Harassment in Your Workplace

How to Handle False Complaints of Discrimination or Harassment in your Workplace

What if one of your employees lodges a complaint of discrimination or harassment but your prompt, detailed and fair investigation reveals that he or she has fabricated their accusation? How would you deal with that state of affairs? Many employers fire the complainant on the grounds that he or she has deliberately falsified a complaint of harassment in violation of your company’s anti-harassment policy. But doing so can be a really bad move!

Most employers are somewhat familiar with statutes such as Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that prohibit discrimination and harassment against employees on the basis of characteristics such as race, sex, nationality, and ethnicity. Many employers are not aware, however, that this statute contains another critical component: the anti-retaliation provisions.

According to the anti-retaliation provisions of the Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, even if an allegation of discrimination or harassment completely lacks merit, an employer may not take negative action against an employee just for filing a complaint. A review of recent case law demonstrates how this issue could play out.

In 2017, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) brought charges against HP Pelzer, Inc., an automotive components manufacturer in federal court in Tennessee, asserting that the company had violated Title VII by terminating a female employee after concluding that she had violated company policy by fabricating a complaint of harassment. The EEOC’s lawsuit alleged that HP Pelzer violated the retaliation provision of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which forbids employers from putting an employee at an unfair disadvantage because he or she complained of alleged discrimination. The federal court allowed the case to proceed to trial despite the defendant’s objections and attempts to have it dismissed.

In a similar case, Cava Mezze Grills terminated a female member of staff after concluding an investigation that established that she had fabricated claims of sexual harassment by other female personnel. This time, the Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals held that Cava Mezze Grill did not break the federal law as Title VII prohibits retaliation only when an employee has engaged in protected activity and the employer is aware that the employee engaged in protected activity. In this case, the employer was able to provide a nonpretextual nonretaliatory reason for the employee’s termination.

How can Business Owners Avoid Trouble?

It is only natural to be nervous when Chicago business owners are faced with accusations of discrimination or harassment. After all, such serious allegations can lead to friction in your business and/or be grounds for an investigation by the state, costing you a fortune in legal fees. On the other hand, if you implement a careful set of tactics for handling it, you can minimize the possibility of legal consequences.

So, What Can a Business Owner Do?

First and foremost, you must always keep an open mind and investigate any complaints that you receive. Failing to look into an accusation, believing that it could not, under any circumstances, be true is a surefire way to find your business on the wrong side of the law. You can start by interviewing the accuser and the accused to ascertain exactly what was said or done. Make sure that you note every detail in writing as it can help you avoid many legal complications in the future.

When interviewing the accuser and the accused, you may want to look for corroboration or contradiction. Often, both people involved will offer contradictory accounts of the incident, leaving you with inconsistent details. You may have to turn to other people that were present during the incident for more details.

It would also be in your best interest to keep things off the public record. Discrimination or harassment accusations can polarize your workplace. Worse, if too many personal details relevant to the accusation are leaked, you may be blamed for tarnishing the reputation of the people involved and get slapped with a defamation suit. Avoid these pitfalls by practicing confidentiality in your investigation.

You must also educate yourself on the statutes pertaining to workplace discrimination and harassment. You can easily avoid allegations of unjust treatment by acting in accordance with the law. However, if you do come up against a government agency like the EEOC, you should proceed carefully but also cooperate with their investigation at the same time. Try to provide any detail or documentation the agency might request or need keeping in mind that this material could be used against you in the court.

Always remember that when an employee comes to you with issues regarding discrimination or harassment, you should be understanding and treat the complainant with consideration and compassion. Most importantly, you should never retaliate! As mentioned earlier, punishing an employee for complaining about discrimination or harassment in the workplace is an illegal employment practice and retaliating will only make the situation worse for you!

Contact Experienced Chicago Business Lawyers

Business owners need to have access to experienced and competent attorneys who understand the unique nature of their businesses to help them navigate the many issues confronting them on a regular basis. The business team at Bellas & Wachowski has the experience and knowledge to help business owners with their businesses. For more information and to meet our lawyers, contact George Bellas directly at george@bellas-wachowski.com

Serving business owners in Chicago, Arlington Heights, Niles, Des Plaines, Elk Grove, Schaumburg, Skokie, Glenview, Mount Prospect, and throughout Cook County.