To Complain or Not to Complain, That is the Question

When coworkers have different ideas about how to communicate or how to approach tasks at work, friction can result. Employees may take issue with the leadership style of their superiors, leaders may find the work ethic of their subordinates lacking, or coworkers may simply dislike one another for no apparent reason.

Although it may not be possible to eliminate all conflict in the workplace, it’s important for employers and employees to identify conflict and deal with it appropriately, especially when the root of the conflict may be discriminatory.

When you are being bullied or treated unfairly as an employee, you are likely to consider complaining to Human Resources. Before you take that step, there are some things that you should consider.

Protected Complaints

While it’s true that you can be legally terminated at any time for any reason in an “at will” state, federally protected characteristics form the bases for exceptions to this rule. Federally protected characteristics include the following:

  • Race
  • Religion
  • National Origin
  • Gender
  • Age
  • Pregnancy
  • Disability

Federal law also may also protect employees in situations involving pay or sick leave, among other things.

If you believe the conflict you are experiencing at work is related to any of the above characteristics, you should submit a complaint in writing to your Human Resources department immediately, and your complaint should include the protected characteristic you believe is the issue. A complaint that alleges mistreatment because of a protected characteristic is also protected from retaliation. Your employer cannot legally terminate you for making such a complaint, but should investigate and intervene to stop any discriminatory treatment.

Unprotected Complaints

Most employees are shocked to learn that harassment and bullying in the workplace is generally not illegal unless it touches on one of the federally protected characteristics above.

When a conflict between coworkers does not involve a federally protected characteristic, a complaint to Human Resources may not be protected from retaliation. In fact, a complaint about harassment or conflict that does not include any allegation about a protected characteristic may prompt a termination of one or both employees if the employer believes that the employee(s) cannot manage their work relationships.

Many employees believe that the employer’s Human Resource department is there to help them solve the problems they may have with coworkers, but that’s not necessarily the case. More often, the role of Human Resource personnel is risk management for the employer rather than refereeing or counseling for the employees. For this reason, complaints made to Human Resources may or may not be protected from retaliation, depending on the nature of the complaint.

If you believe you are being harassed or have been terminated because of a federally protected characteristic, contact Barrett & Farahany, LLP at (404) 238-7921 for a complimentary consultation with an attorney.

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