When a manager is fired for violation of the company's harassment or discrimination policy, it is fairly common for that manager to file an EEOC charge or threaten a lawsuit, claiming that the termination was actually motivated by age, gender or some other form of discrimination directed toward him. Employers may view themselves between a rock and a hard place. If they fail to take action against the manager due to fear of a discrimination claim, they may face legal steps from the employee who complained about the harassment.
Fortunately, both the EEOC and federal courts approach these claims with a healthy degree of skepticism, as illustrated earlier this month by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Jackson v. Cal-Western Packaging Corp. The plaintiff in this case was terminated after a detailed investigation of sexually inappropriate behavior alleged by a number of employees. He claimed that the termination decision was actually motivated by his age, and as evidence, introduced a statement by the executive who terminated him, calling him an "old, gray-haired fart" during a conversation well prior to the harassment investigation.
The Fifth Circuit wasted little time in rejecting these allegations. The court found no compelling evidence to challenge the findings of the harassment investigation beyond the plaintiff's own self-serving statements. More importantly, the question for the court was not whether the conclusions of the investigation were correct. Instead, the court focused on whether the employer acted reasonably and in good faith.
The Court characterized the terminating executive's comment as a "stray remark" that was not probative evidence of discrimination. It occurred almost a year before the investigation, and had nothing to do with the harassment situation. The plaintiff could not produce other evidence that the executive acted in any way consistent with this remark.
In the end, employers that conduct a reasonable and fair investigation of harassment or discrimination complaints can take firm and appropriate action based upon the results of the investigation. Even if the conclusions of the investigation are later challenged or even disproven, this does not create a legal claim for the terminated employee. Employers face greater legal risks if they fail to appropriately respond to the original allegations due to fear of action from the accused party.