I always emphasize that businesses can make themselves virtually judgment proof with preventative action—establishing a zero-tolerance environment and letting employees know what is expected. There is also a science, almost an art, to dealing with employee complaints and concerns.
An employee who had been terminated from one of my client organizations recently called our whistle blower/action hotline. The case involves several issues that illustrate how to avoid problems.
The caller was using the hotline in an attempt to retrieve her job or, at least, to vent her anger and frustration at the situation. I listened and discovered that she had been terminated for frequent violations of the company dress code. What I heard raised no concerns for her ex-employer. What did the employee expect when she showed up for work dressed like she just came from a nightclub (tight dress, revealing neck and hem lines—you get the picture)!
I had a long conversation with this person in an attempt to calm her and communicate that I cared. I acknowledged that dress code issues are sticky because choice of clothing at work conveys taste and includes issues of style, all of which is very subjective. Wardrobe choices in social situations are made to communicate one message while, at work, they should convey an altogether different message.
Employers do not want distractions or drama at work or anything that pulls employees’ attention away from productivity and performance. I advised her that employers want employees’ wardrobe choices (and other outward factors) to communicate professionalism, not sexuality. Employers do not want their employees to treat other employees as sexual beings but rather as professional contributors. And, employers actually have a very serious obligation to create a zone at work that is free from unwelcomed sexuality related behavior.
All of this was meant to help this terminated employee understand that she was being heard by someone who cared about her and her situation. If the opposite message had been communicated, then she would be very likely to keep going in her search for someone who will listen and care—someone like the State Human Rights Commission or the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.
In all likelihood, this termination would not result in a sustainable wrongful discharge lawsuit, but it could. It is “anybody’s game” when one goes into the legal system. What is certain is that if this person did go to the outside agencies that are available and free of charge to the complainant, it would cost the ex-employer in money, worry and time away from work to defend the decision to terminate.
Knowing the law and creating the right environment is important. It’s also critical for employers to respond in the right way when issues arise.