What happens when a complaining employee will not take no for an answer? The employee files a complaint of discrimination with human resources, which investigates the claim and concludes that it is without merit. The employee then files repeated formal complaints alleging the same discriminatory practices. At what point can the employer tell the employee to stop complaining, without it being considered retaliatory or a failure to investigate an employee complaint?
In Soto v. Core-Mark Int’l., Inc., a new Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals decision, the court provides guidance for employers caught in this situation. The plaintiff alleged national origin discrimination, complaining that only non-Hispanic employees were permitted to wear certain clothing in the workplace. The employer investigated the claim and found it to be baseless. The employee continued to file repeated complaints with human resources, alleging the same discriminatory acts. Finally, the employer told the employee to stop filing complaints on this issue, and that he was not allowed to speak to anyone in human resources without first making an appointment.
The employee sued after being terminated for sleeping on the job. In his complaint, he alleged retaliation and discrimination based on the restrictions placed upon his ability to complain to human resources. In affirming summary judgment for the employer, the Eighth Circuit concluded that the restrictions were a reasonable reaction to the employee’s repeated complaints about identical claims that had been investigated, and explained as non-discriminatory behavior. The employer never prevented the plaintiff from opposing illegal practices, it instead placed reasonable restrictions given his disruptive behavior.
In general, employers should hesitate before placing restrictions on employees’ ability to make internal complaints. The alternative for most employees will be to complain to a government agency or to hire an attorney to pursue legal claims against the employer. However, when human resources has fully and fairly dealt with a complaint, the employer has the right not to put up with disruptive behavior intended by the complaining party as an expression of dissatisfaction with the decision.