HR and legal execs fired for reporting violations
Usually, an organization depends on its HR director and in-house lawyer to make sure they stay in compliance with the law and respond to potential violations promptly. But what happens when HR and legal staff face retaliation and termination for essentially doing their job? For one organization, it was an expensive “compliance don’t.”
In a recent case, the American Dental Association agreed to pay $1.95 million to resolve charges that it discriminated against its HR director and chief legal counsel after they complained about potential violations of federal anti-discrimination laws.
In announcing the settlement, the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) said their investigation led them to believe that the former employees were discharged in 2010 in retaliation for complaining to the board of directors about potential civil rights and anti-discrimination violations protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA) and the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA).
“The position of the EEOC is that human resources professionals and in-house lawyers who advise their employers to abide by anti-discrimination laws are engaged in protected activities, and any retaliation against them for doing so is illegal,” said Julianne Bowman, director of EEOC’s Chicago District Office, in a news release.
In addition to the nearly $2 million payment to the former employees, the two-year conciliation agreement requires the association to take proactive steps to prevent future acts of discrimination and retaliation. These measures include conducting training on Title VII, the ADA and the ADEA for all employees at the Chicago headquarters and posting a notice – visible to all employees – of the EEOC’s findings and agreement.
The American Dental Association denied that it engaged in unlawful conduct and released a statement included in the EEOC’s news release that said, in part:
“As sometimes happens in business, differences arose between them (the discharged employees) and other members of the management team as to how various issues should be approached and handled, but this does not diminish the value of the many contributions that each made to the American Dental Association during their tenure. The association regrets that its actions led them to believe that they were retaliated against, and apologizes for any conduct that they may have construed as retaliation.”
Retaliation is No. 1 discrimination complaint
Charges of workplace retaliation comprise almost 46% of all charges filed with the EEOC in 2016 – that makes it the No. 1 discrimination complaint. Given the high number of claims, it appears that many organizations are still unclear about what actions constitute retaliation. Simply said, retaliation occurs when an employer fires, demotes, reassigns, disciplines, harasses, bullies or takes other “adverse action” against an employee for filing a complaint of discrimination or participating in an internal investigation.
In a previous post, we covered the EEOC’s updated retaliation enforcement guidelines, which are intended to help employers reduce the risk of a retaliation violations and expensive claims.
The EEOC’s anti-retaliation provisions are designed to ensure that employees can freely raise concerns or make complaints of potential violations without their employers taking negative actions against them. As the American Dental Association’s costly settlement demonstrates, organizations should take employee complaints of discrimination very seriously and handle them with care, not punishment.