Based on the facts presented in the scenario below, how do you think the court ruled on this employment-law case?
“Rosalee Higgins claims you told her she was fired,” HR manager Katrina van Leuwen told supervisor Bob Tandy.
“No, that would have been the wrong thing to do,” Bob replied. “She was complaining about alleged harassment, and I know if you fire somebody who’s making a harassment complaint, you can get in big trouble.”
“I’m glad you’re aware of that,” Katrina said. “What did you tell her?”
“I listened to what she had to say, and read what she had written down,” Bob said. “The complaint sounded bogus to me, so after we’d talked for 45 minutes I wadded it up and threw it in the trash. Then I said I wanted her out of there,” Bob said. “I admit, I was fed up.”
A question of interpretation
“Didn’t you also say you never wanted to see her again?” Katrina prompted. “That could sound like you were firing her.”
“No,” Bob said. “I said I didn’t care if I ever saw her again. Different point. I was very disappointed in her. I didn’t fire her.”
“Another thing,” he went on. “When I told her to get out, I didn’t mean permanently. It was the end of the day and I wanted to close the book and move on.”
“You may have to tell that to a judge,” Katrina said. “Rosalee is suing us for retaliation. Of course, our position is that she refused to return to work, even after I explained she wasn’t fired.”
Yes, Rosalee got a court to agree her retaliation lawsuit should not be dismissed and should be heard by a jury.
The court said it wasn’t unreasonable for Rosalee to assume supervisor Bob was firing her. His statement about never wanting to see her again, or never caring if he did, was enough for her to draw that conclusion, especially after he’d said he “wanted her out of here.”
And although the company tried to get her to come back to work a couple of days later, Bob’s conduct was still enough to dissuade a reasonable employee from making a harassment complaint. That’s the legal definition of retaliation.
Takeaway: It’s easy to lose your temper – or control over what you say – when an employee makes a complaint you consider unfounded or frivolous. Don’t. Bite your tongue, squeeze a stress ball, take a walk outside; do whatever you must to avoid words that may resonate in court long after you’ve said them.
Cite: Young-Losee v. Graphic Packaging International, No. 10-2012, 8th Cir., 1/26/11.
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