In the Trenches: Behavior complaints lead to retaliation?

A former school teacher turned plant inspector is offended by some sophomoric behavior among her co-workers. Her complaints get one co-worker fired, but also lead to her being disliked by coworkers. She quits and files a retaliation, constructive discharge and sexual harassment suit against Acme. How could this have been avoided?

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The good folks at Acme tended to be a laid-back bunch. They never were very adept at building the requisite quality into its products that compete in a global marketplace. But that situation was a good thing for Angie Graham, an out-of-work grade-school math teacher, who Acme hired as inspector in Acme’s laminating department on the strength of her knowledge of appropriate numeric principles. With her wire-rim glasses, sensible shoes and retro hairdo, Angie fit the stereotypical image of a teacher. She performed her work in a meek and quiet manner, not really interacting with coworkers, probably the result of being overwhelmed by the cultural differences between academia and manufacturing.

Jesse Pennie, on the other hand, was a real character who worked in the material handling department, where he drove a forklift to transport raw material and finished product around the plant. Periodically, his route brought him through the laminating department. If Cass Tyern saw Jesse in the area, she made a point of calling out to him to get off his forklift and talk to her. That was the standard prelude to Jesse and Cass engaging in a few minutes of overt flirting and, in many cases, touching and fondling in full view of anyone who chose to watch. Most of the time, it was Cass who initiated the advances and escalated their intensity. Then, just as quickly as this public display of affection began, it ended. Cass went back to her work station and Jesse got back in the saddle and drove off to his next transfer point as if nothing had happened.

Seeing this periodic odd behavior offended Angie’s sensibilities, but she had the least seniority in the department and kept quiet about her feelings. Rarely did she mention her concern to her coworkers, and when she did, nobody seemed to care very much about Jesse and Cass or what they did. Most people were concerned only with Jesse’s ability to move raw materials and finished goods to ensure that the department doesn’t clog up with either. And everyone accepted Cass’s persona as a popular, vivacious, outgoing party animal. Her quick wit could always elicit a laugh from even the sourest of Monday-morning personalities and she had enough charm to disarm any angry people she encountered during her solo trip through life.

But, Angie went out of her way to avoid having to interact with either of these people she considered to be evil and profligate. Nevertheless, her sense of outrage festered into something she could barely contain. It overflowed during her first 90-day performance review. Angie complained to her boss, Myra Maines, about Jesse’s actions. “I’ve been keeping an eye on them,” Angie said as she pulled a little black notebook out of her pocket. She began reciting page after page of notations she claimed would fully document what she considered to be Jesse’s and Cass’s offensive behavior during the past several months.

Myra told her to calm down. She was aware of Jesse’s and Cass’ behavior. She also pointed out that they’re both unmarried and that they’ve been playing that flirting game for years. To the best of her knowledge, Myra had no evidence that they socialize together outside the plant. It’s just the way they are, she explained to Angie, part of the local color, a couple of characters. She assured Angie that it really was nothing to get worked up over and that there’s nothing serious going on between them.

This forum didn’t give Angie the satisfaction she was seeking. So, she sent an e-mail to the plant manager to push her complaint higher up the chain. To put some punch behind her allegations, the e-mail included, thanks to her little notebook, a listing of dates, times and specific details for about a dozen instances of what she considered immoral touching and lewd behavior happening between Jesse and Cass. She topped off the missive with a promise never to stop her righteous crusade until she prevailed, as evidenced by the termination of the behavior that offended her so much.

The next day, nothing changed. Jesse and Cass carried on as usual. Nothing changed the following day, or the day after that, either. Nothing changed, except there were now fewer blank pages in Angie’s notebook.

A few days later, Angie started to suspect that Jesse always went to the men’s restroom whenever she went to the women’s restroom. She was convinced that Jesse kept an eye on her and entered the men’s room to spy on her, then remained there for some time after Angie returned to her work station. This gave her the creeps, and she complained to Myra about these suspicions. Again, her proof came straight from the little notebook.

This time, however, something happened. Acme management sent written warnings to both Jesse and Cass telling them to be somewhat less sophomoric in their behavior around the plant floor.

But, as before, nothing changed. Jesse and Cass carried on as usual and Angie kept filling pages in her little notebook. Angie thought that her work situation was now driving her raving mad. Rather distraught, she again complained to Myra about the egregious behavior chronicled in her notes. And she again voiced her suspicion that Jesse went to the men’s restroom every time she went to the women’s room.

Myra confronted Jesse about Angie’s allegations. After some verbal jousting and obfuscation, Jesse asked who complained about him and Cass. When Myra revealed Angie’s name, Jesse had a genuine confused look on his face. He said he didn’t know this person and asked Myra to point her out. When he saw his accuser, he merely said he never noticed her before, never spoke a word to her and didn’t know who she was. However, Jesse finally admitted that, even after he received the written warning, he might have made some remarks that people of extreme sensitivity might find offensive. But, he categorically denied any connection between him, his behavior and Angie’s restroom forays.

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