High court case: If harassed workers talk, can they be fired?
A Tennessee woman lost her job after she cooperated in a company investigation.
The US Supreme Court is set to hear a case this week that will provide important practical advice to workers asked to participate in an internal company investigation of alleged sexual harassment by a senior manager.Skip to next paragraph
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The question: Should you cooperate and speak freely, or remain silent?
The issue arises in a case examining whether civil rights laws protect employees from retaliation by senior managers accused of sexual harassment.
The concern among employees is that if they speak freely and implicate a senior manager or supervisor in discriminatory conduct they will probably be subject to workplace retaliation by senior managers or supervisors.
The fear is not hypothetical. According to one study, 62 percent of state workers who complained of sexual harassment reported that they faced retaliation in the form of lowered job evaluations, denial of promotions, and being transferred or fired.
Last term, the Supreme Court ruled for employees and against supervisors in two cases where workers lost their job or were otherwise punished after complaining about workplace discrimination. The high court held that civil rights laws protect workers from such retaliation.
On Wednesday, the justices take up another retaliation case – this one involving a 30-year employee in the payroll department of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn. Vicky Crawford agreed to answer questions during an informal inquiry into allegations that the director of employee relations had engaged in sexual harassment. Among the director's duties was investigation of sexual harassment complaints.
Ms. Crawford did not initiate the investigation, nor had she filed any formal charges. The internal inquiry was conducted by a female lawyer in the legal department. Crawford told the lawyer she was afraid that if she told the truth she might lose her job. Nonetheless, she became one of three women who told the lawyer that the director of employee relations had made repeated inappropriate gestures and comments of a sexual nature in the workplace.
After the investigation, the director of employee relations was given a verbal reprimand, but no other disciplinary action was taken. Senior management then began an investigation of Crawford and her department. She and the other two women were fired.
The central question in the case is whether Crawford is protected under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 from retaliation by senior managers after informally accusing a senior manager of sexual harassment. Her lawyers say she is protected because of her cooperation in the internal sexual-harassment investigation.