Terminating Employee Because of his Tone of Voice is Direct Evidence of Retaliation, Court Rules

There is more bad news for employers in a recent Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals opinion that reversed, in part, a district court’s dismissal of one particular hostile work environment claim.

In Yazdian v Conmed Endoscopic Technologies, Inc., the employee complained to his direct supervisor that there was a “hostile work environment” and that “he would respond with counsel…and charges.” 

The appellate court found that these statements, without mention of any protected status, discrimination, or civil rights laws, were sufficient to put the employer on notice that the employee was complaining about unlawful discrimination. Once on notice, the employer’s duty to investigate and take prompt and appropriate action is triggered.

So, it is a good practice to always investigate whenever an employee complains about a “hostile work environment.” And, yes, employees sprinkle those terms around like salt on popcorn, but failure to investigate will result in the employer losing a major affirmative defense.

The news got even worse for the employer in Yazdian. The appellate court also found that the supervisor provided direct evidence of a retaliatory motive by pointing to the employee’s complaint of a hostile work environment as evidence of the employee’s unwillingness to accept constructive criticism. The court noted that summary dismissal is not proper when the employer cites the employee’s “tone of voice or manner of speaking” (or attitude) as the cause of termination, especially in the context of a Title VII claim of retaliation. 

The takeaway here… it is always wise to consult with employment counsel prior to making termination decisions and preparing discharge documents.

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