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In boost for workers, high court affirms shield from employer retaliation

The justices rule that civil rights law protects a woman who was fired after answering questions in a harassment probe.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / January 27, 2009

SOURCE: US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission /Rich Clabaugh/STAFF


Employees who provide evidence during an informal investigation of discrimination in the workplace are legally protected against retaliation from the boss or other senior managers.

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In an important workers' rights decision announced Monday, the US Supreme Court ruled unanimously that Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 shields employees from retaliatory acts even when the employee hasn't filed a formal complaint.

In an eight-page decision written by Justice David Souter, the high court cast a broad blanket of protection over American workers struggling in a hostile work environment. Those employees who help identify and root out allegedly discriminatory actions by senior managers and supervisors – even though they may not have filed a formal complaint – are nonetheless protected from retaliation, the court said.

The decision puts managers and supervisors on notice that they face legal consequences if they use their power in the organization to try to cover up their own discriminatory actions by retaliating against complaining employees. In addition, the decision puts employees on notice that, when they come forward to help expose discrimination in the workplace, they clearly enjoy the protections of the law.

The decision comes in the case of Vicky Crawford, a 30-year employee in the payroll department of the Metropolitan Government of Nashville and Davidson County, Tenn. Ms. Crawford agreed to answer questions during an informal inquiry into allegations that the director of employee relations had engaged in sexual harassment of female workers in the office. Among the director's duties was investigation of sexual-harassment complaints.

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 she might lose her job if she told the truth about the manager's behavior.

Crawford eventually answered the questions. She was 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 received a verbal reprimand, but no other disciplinary action was taken. Senior management then began an investigation of Crawford and her department. She and the two other women were fired.