In the Trenches: Behavior complaints lead to retaliation?

June 11, 2007
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?

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.

The admission to having ignored the written warning ultimately led to Jesse’s termination, an outcome that pleased Angie very much. But this only led to her suspicion that her coworkers were now giving her the cold shoulder and acting decidedly less friendly. She also felt that now she was being singled out for the less pleasant jobs in the department. She complained to Myra again, but she cut her short and told her that there’s no conspiracy here, nobody is out to get her. She told Angie that she should get over it and get back to work.

Shortly thereafter, Angie quit her job and filed suit against Acme, alleging retaliation, constructive discharge and sexual harassment.

How could this situation have been avoided? Should new employees be given some basic information about the corporate culture during the interviewing process? Are there any benefits to a see-no-evil, hear-no-evil, speak-no-evil approach to life on the plant floor? Can industry tolerate a permissive manufacturing environment? Does going over your supervisor’s head ever result in a good outcome? Should Acme have responded more appropriately to Angie’s initial complaints? Should Acme have alerted Jesse and Cass sooner that an employee had a problem with their behavior? In the end, Acme lost two seemingly good employees. How could they have done better?

An academician says:

This is a tricky issue, and I sympathize with Acme on this one. There’s a large grey area in evaluating employee conduct. The behavior of Jesse and Cass probably doesn’t violate federal law, nor is it detrimental to Acme’s profits. So, what’s the issue? Well, this behavior is in the grey area of “appropriate” behavior – and what’s appropriate for one person might not be so for another.

For example, some people have found it offensive to have an openly gay person in the workplace. Others have objected to how some women dress, with tank tops and miniskirts being a frequent target. I’m old enough to recall the times when slacks were definitely considered inappropriate dress for women in the workplace.

Acme’s response to the situation is probably very typical of most organization’s response to such grey area issues – if no one complains, then ignore it. However, Angie presents a problem that’s difficult to ignore.

While the description of Jesse’s and Cass’ behavior is a little vague, it appears that there definitely were sexual overtones. Given this assumption, I think the supervisor should have stepped in quickly when the behavior was first noticed. I’m sure Jesse’s defense would have been that they “weren’t doing anything wrong,” and “nobody is complaining.” And these arguments are difficult to counter. However, by allowing the behavior to continue openly, Acme is sending the message that there’s nothing wrong with this behavior. It’s better to play it safe from the outset, than to be sorry later.

The purpose of organizational rules of conduct, as spelled out in the employee handbook and drummed into new employees in their company orientation, is to have a smooth running organization. Some of the terms used in the handbook might be a little vague, such as “dress professionally,” however, a consensus usually develops or should develop as to what professional dress entails. Being clear as to these rules, and enforcing them, will avoid problems such as those presented in this case.

Professor Homer H. Johnson, Ph.D.
Loyola University Chicago
(312) 915-6682
[email protected]

An attorney says:

Solving this problem demanded some creativity. Given Cass’ purported quick wit and ability to charm angry people, Myra should have given Cass money to take Angie to dinner and drinks so that Cass could charm Myra into accepting her antics at work with Jesse.

With her wire rim glasses, sensible shoes and background as a schoolteacher, Angie may have felt she needed to ride herd on her coworkers in the same fashion as she did her students. Had Cass been able to befriend Angie, the uptight woman may have become more accepting of Cass’ unorthodox behavior in the workplace.

Myra’s placating response to Angie’s complaint seems only to have intensified her righteous furor. As for the plant manager, didn’t he know that this flirting game between Cass and Jessie had been going on for years? If he wanted Jesse and Cass to tone down their public display of affection, he should have called them in, talked to them and explained that an employee complained about the behavior. Had Jesse and Cass understood that their open flirting was offensive, they might have behaved differently. Given Cass’ personality, she logically could have assumed her coworkers found her floor show a delightful diversion.
Did either Myra or the plant manager think to consult Acme’s human resource department, either in response to Angie’s complaints or before giving warnings to Jesse and Cass? Human resource personnel normally are experienced at dealing with the vagaries of human nature.

Sadly, two people lost their jobs and Acme has lost two competent, if not valued, workers. Trying to salvage a good employee sometimes does require an ounce of creativity.

Julie Badel, partner
Epstein Becker & Green, P.C.
(312) 499-1418
[email protected]

A corporate consultant says:

In this case, only one real option existed that might have avoided the loss of both employees.
Myra should have delivered a verbal warning to Jesse and Cass, requiring that they take their affectionate behavior off-site. The verbal warning should have included the next steps in the disciplinary process if the initial warning were to be disregarded. That neither of them was married doesn't negate the inappropriateness of displaying public affection in the workplace. That no one before Angie complained about their behavior doesn't validate the behavior. And the fact that Acme's performance expectations were being met doesn't mitigate their behavior.

Failing to prune public displays of affection out of the workplace implies consenting to the behavior. By logical extension, then, if it's OK for Jesse and Cass to behave that way, the same standard would have to be applied to all Acme employees. Acme was on thin ice before Angie ever got there. The fact that some version of the behavior Jesse and Cass exhibit hadn't already produced an expanded problem for Acme doesn't indemnify Acme from that inevitable result.

Myra should have realized that Angie's complaint was tantamount to a lit fuse in her department. Had Myra chosen the above approach, both employees would likely still be at Acme.

Francie Dalton
Dalton Alliances Inc.
(410) 715-0484
[email protected]

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