How to know how much you should sweat an employee complaint

Despite HR’s best efforts, a workplace investigation can lead to lawsuits. When an EEOC right-to-sue letter accompanies a lawsuit, any HR exec will get a sinking feeling in the stomach.

Many EEOC claims get tossed out, usually on the following grounds. Your workplace investigation should answer these questions:

  1. Does your company meet the threshold requirements? If your company doesn’t have the threshold number of employees required by each anti-discrimination law, the case gets tossed. Here are the numbers required:
    · For Title VII and ADA: 15 or more
    · For ADEA: 20 or more
    · For Equal Pay Act: One or more.
  2. Was the employee’s complaint timely? Workers must submit their complaints within specific deadlines: 180 days for the EEOC and 300 days for state human rights organizations. If workers miss the deadline, they must show a compelling reason why. Courts are reluctant to give extensions.
  3. Did the allegation come as a surprise to the company? Did the worker complain to her supervisor or HR? If not, then the company was never put on notice, and not given a chance to correct the problem.
  4. Did the worker exhaust administrative remedies? Workers must give the company’s discrimination- complaint system a chance to work.
  5. Did the company follow through on its anti-discrimination policies? If the worker did go through your process, take a look at how it was handled. Was the workplace investigation and any discipline documented? Was there an attempt made to train supervisors in avoiding future incidents and in any behavior that looks like retaliation?

Adapted from an audio conference by Alyssa T. Senzel, EEOC Charges: How to Prepare an Airtight Response and Avoid Costly Payouts, 5/17/06.

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