I was terminated for contacting a coworker who said I said something that made her uncomfortable—is this legal?

I was away from work for a month with the reserve. When I returned to work things were very different, they had changed my job. A sexual harassment issue between a female coworker and myself came into the picture even though there was never any hint of this before. I was told that this coworker had given the supervisor a heads-up that I had said something that made her uncomfortable, but that there was no complaint (I was never told what I allegedly said). I was in shock about this. I was terminated a few days later for contacting the employee that had made the non-complaint even though I didn’t know I wasn’t supposed to.

Rita Risser Chai replies:

Most employees are “at will,” meaning that you can be fired for any reason, or no reason. There are exceptions if you are a union or government employee, or if your company has a policy that requires them to investigate (that is, hear your side) or give you warnings before termination. The fact that there was no complaint is irrelevant. Companies need to take seriously any information they receive about behavior that potentially violates their harassment policy. It is normal for you to want to know what you said, and for you to want to ask her about it. At the same time, you need to realize that if she felt uncomfortable enough to report you, and the company felt it serious enough to change your job, then your approaching her would make her even more uncomfortable and could even be seen as threatening. Your best bet at this point may be to read everything you can on sexual harassment from a woman’s point of view in order to learn more about how you may be perceived, so you don’t make other women feel uncomfortable in the future. Good luck.

Posted 12-05-2017

Information here is correct at the time it is posted. Case decisions cited here may be reversed. Please do not rely on this information without consulting an attorney first.

2017-12-05T18:41:05+00:00

About the Author:

Rita M. Risser Chai is the founder of Fair Measures. An attorney in California for 20 years and now an attorney in Hawaii, she authored the Prentice Hall book, Stay Out of Court! The Manager’s Guide to Preventing Employee Lawsuits. She developed most of the curriculum used by Fair Measures, created the firm’s first website praised in HR Magazine, and wrote numerous articles on employment law including one on best practice harassment prevention training published in the magazine of the American Society for Training and Development (now ATD). She taught Law and Human Resources at the University of California, Santa Cruz, for eight years, and has presented four times at the annual conventions of the Hawaii Society of Human Resource Management.