How to Deal

Protect Yourself From Co-Worker's Baseless Complaints

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By Lily Garcia
Special to washingtonpost.com
Wednesday, December 19, 2007; 5:23 PM

My problem stems from the actions of an underperforming co-worker who is part of a group that I unofficially supervise. Based upon my negative appraisal of their work combined with a personal dislike, this individual has started to file frivolous claims of discrimination against myself and my supervisor. Three of the original complaints have been rejected by our office that handles these cases, and a fourth I am confident will be rejected after investigation. The EEO office informed me that this latter complaint was only being investigated because it came in too late to stop it. I understand that an individual has a legal right to file EEO complaints, but is the individual completely immune from any action when it is shown that there never was a reasonable basis for the complaints? The same individual has also been complaining to our administration, essentially trying to sabotage my career. It seems highly unfair that a worker can be subjected to continual harassment in this way with no recourse.

Do not forget that your organization's policies also protect you. Under the circumstances, you may be entitled to complain, and your coworker may be subject to discipline, on the following bases:

  • Making a knowingly false complaint under the anti-discrimination policy. The anti-discrimination policies of many organizations contain a clause providing for disciplinary action against employees who knowingly file baseless complaints. Even if this is not explicit in your policy, your organization may have an established practice for handling these situations.
  • General harassment. In addition to facing the consequences of knowingly filing a false complaint, your co-worker could be held responsible for harassing you. The policies of some organizations address only potentially illegal conduct such as race or sex harassment, but others go well beyond the letter of the law to mandate a certain level of civility and professionalism. Under such policies, harassing behavior, even if it has nothing to do with illegal discrimination, would be prohibited.
  • Unethical conduct. Your organization's codes of business conduct or ethical guidelines likely contain a catch-all rule against dishonesty. The filing of false discrimination complaints against you in retaliation for a negative performance appraisal could be encompassed by such a provision.

If your organization's policies contain any of these protections, consult your EEO office and seek their recommendation on how to proceed. Even without the benefit of clear policy language, you should still point out to your EEO office that you co-worker's conduct is harassing and unethical. It sounds to me like they already get this, but you need to remind them that their work will not be done until your grievances are addressed as well.

Whether under a defined policy or not, it may be appropriate to discipline your co-worker for what s/he has done. However, the fact that you and your boss have been the subjects of these complaints means that you are probably not in the best position to address the behavior. False as the complaints might be, to put you in the position of punishing him or her for making them would easily leave a casual observer with the impression that you are retaliating.

Join Lily Garcia on Tuesday, Jan. 8 at 11 a.m. ET for How to Deal Live.

Lily Garcia has offered employment law and human resources advice to companies of all sizes for 10 years. To submit a question, e-mail hradvice@washingtonpost.com. We reserve the right to edit submitted questions for length and clarity and cannot guarantee that all questions will be answered. The information contained in this column is not intended to be legal advice.


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