Brushing off employee complaints cost $1.6 million

by on May 4, 2009 · 0 Comment POSTED IN: HR Info Center

Probing questions can reveal deeper issues

Every time an HR manager hears employee complaints about harassment or discrimination, there’s that nagging question: Is this complaint an isolated incident – or not?

That’s the question an HR department at a Maryland prison forgot to ask – and just barely dodged a $1.6 million judgment.

The upshot: Don’t assume someone is willing to articulate his or her full list of employee complaints. HR has to be a skilled interviewer to figure out just how big the problem is.

Three employee complaints on file

Mathen Chacko, a naturalized U.S. citizen originally from India, filed three formal employee complaints during his 23-year tenure as a corrections officer. Two seemed fairly minor, and the third was fairly vague: The complaints:

  1. Chacko was ordered out of his African-American supervisor’s office while other African-American employees were permitted to remain.
  2. When he was released early from a training class with a group of workers, all were permitted to go home except for Chacko. He complained to his supervisor, who permitted him to leave also. But the supervisor laughed at him.
  3. He was allegedly demoted after complaining about hostile national-origin treatment, and when he complained, he was told by his boss to quit, see a doctor, or take stress leave. He was intimidated by the response, and noted African-American employees weren’t subject to hostile treatment.

EEOC gave him a right-to-sue letter, and the case went to trial. At trial, the jury learned Chacko was subject to 23 years of racial slurs: “Go back to India and wash elephant nuts for a living,” “Go back home and ride your camel,” and “Crazy Indian.”

The harassment was allegedly in plain sight of supervisors, who laughed along with others, and didn’t discipline anyone. A jury awarded $1.6 million.


The organization was in a heap of trouble, but an appeals court reversed the jury verdict on a technicality. Here’s why: If you’ll notice, there’s a disconnect between the three administrative complaints initially filed by Chacko, and the charges that surfaced at the trial. The appeals court held that the organization was never on notice about these additional employee complaints.

Chacko therefore failed to “exhaust his administrative remedies,” that is, failed to give notice to the organization about his complaints and give the organization an opportunity to fix them.

In all likelihood, Chacko will start from scratch at this point and the legal wrangling will continue. The organization, already seeing its legal exposure, may settle rather than face a second blockbuster verdict.

This case serves as an important heads-up for HR: The organization had three chances to investigate further and find the “iceberg,” but passed each time until it was too late.


Here are some keys to getting to the bottom of employee complaints, so you can fix problems before they go to court:

  • Make sure people come to HR, not just supervisors, about employee complaints. HR should tell people, in new hire orientations and regular training sessions, that they should come to you with employee complaints if they’re not satisfied with their supervisor’s response.
  • Probe deeply during workplace investigations. People who complain about harassment may be upset and unable to articulate thoughts clearly. Many folks be tempted to dismiss them as whiners. (You can bet their supervisors will be so tempted.) Don’t fall into this trap. Learn what happened, when, and why.
  • Correct the specific problem. Part of exhausting adminstrative remedies involves HR fixing the problem. Come down hard on supervisors that permit inappropriate joking or razzing – especially if they join in.
  • Consider formal training (and retraining) on a department-wide basis. If you get the sense that harassment is tolerated in one area of the company, train people again in spotting warning signs of harassment, what counts as harassment, and how to file complaints.

Follow up. Recidivism abounds in cases like these. Take the initiative by doing a follow-up investigation, including talking to the worker who complained, to make sure the problem stays “fixed.”

Cite: Chacko v. Patuxent Institution, No. 04-1577, 4th Cir., 11/30/05.

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