Regular readers of HR Bartender know I love answering their questions. Sometimes I write the reply myself and sometimes I like to draw upon the expertise in the community to help develop the best answer. That’s the case with today’s reader question:
I have a manager who took down our Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDS) for 2 weeks now. I pointed out to him that it’s against company policy to not have this information readily available and he needs to put it back up asap.
He told me because I opened my mouth and said something, he is going to delegate the task of updating the MSDS to me. I’d like your insight on this because I think he’s doing something illegal.
From my perspective, this isn’t a question about MSDS sheets. You can look up MSDS posting requirements on the OSHA website. This is a question about retaliation. Yep, the dreaded “R” word. Employee retaliation lawsuits are at an all-time high. And a common worry for companies and managers is the perception of retaliatory behavior.
Since I’ve written about retaliation before, I’ve decided to use this as an opportunity to tap into the experiences of the leadership community for some guidance.
What would you say to a manager who is being accused of retaliation?
Wally Bock from Three Star Leadership, points out in this situation “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” He says, “If you do the right thing, that’s the best defense. Alas, there are a few boss haters out there who will try to bait you. Don’t rise to the bait. If you do, immediately document exactly what happened, the run-up to the incident, and who said what. Forget the adjectives. Include dates and times.”
And if you’re the person responsible for investigating the accusation, get the facts. Dan McCarthy, author of the blog Great Leadership, reminds us to do our due diligence. “I’d really want to hear the manager’s side of the story too. There’s always another side.”
However as McCarthy points out, “let’s assume he knew about OSHA requirements and he really did use the ‘delegation’ as a punishment for speaking up. In that case, I’d first clue him in about the whole retaliation trend, and put a little fear into him.”
While this approach might seem harsh, it could be a positive tipping point for the manager. Jennifer V. Miller, author of the blog The People Equation, shared a story. “I know a manager who was (in my opinion, unjustly) accused of racism and had an EEOC claim filed against her. The case was eventually thrown out, but she didn’t just breathe a sigh of relief and move on. Instead, she used the experience to evaluate her managerial style. She has often said that the experience of having a racial lawsuit brought against her, while stressful, helped her come out the other side of it a more attuned manager. So, while a company rightly wants to avoid litigation at all costs, there is an individual aspect as well: even a looming lawsuit doesn’t need to be the end of the world for the accused.”
Bock agrees moving these matters into the realm of courtroom drama isn’t a good thing. “Don’t let it get there. Be a good boss and establish relationships with your team members. Try to do the right thing. If you mess up, ‘fess up and fix it.”
Miller concurs that creating a positive employee/manager relationship is key. “The claim of retaliation from an employee is rarely based on a manager’s single act. More likely, there’s a list of offenses that stem from misunderstandings and faulty misperceptions. Talk about a total trust meltdown!” If you have any question about your behavior, she suggests asking yourself a couple questions:
- What might an impartial observer say?
- Is there any way these actions might be seen as retaliatory, even if there’s absolutely no ill will on the my part?
And if a situation arises (like with this reader question), McCarthy recommends looking deeper. “I’d want to dig deeper into his relationship with this employee, and perhaps all employees. It sounds like a toxic relationship, and something needs to change.”
A huge thanks to Wally, Dan and Jennifer for sharing their wisdom. This isn’t an easy subject. But it is one we can benefit from talking about.
Retaliation is a serious topic. Managers need to be educated about the possible legal ramifications of their actions. This will help them understand the dynamics and not fear them. The last thing anyone wants is for a manager to abdicate their responsibilities for fear of retaliation. It doesn’t help the manager, the company, or the rest of the team.2