Thursday, February 21, 2013

It’s your last chance … to avoid retaliation

Last month, the EEOC announced a half-million dollar settlement with BASF Corporation. The agency alleged that BASF retaliated against a poor performing employee by insisting, as part of a “last-chance agreement”, that the employee not file any charges of discrimination with the EEOC. Concerned about the agreement’s effect on his civil rights, the employee refused to sign; the company fired him.

Agreements are wonderful tools to use with our employees. They come in all shapes and sizes—employment agreements, severance agreements, settlement agreements, and last-chance agreements, to name a few. One benefit from an agreement is that it can limit an employee’s ability to bring suit against an employer. For example, many employment agreements contain clauses that waive one’s right to ask for a jury trial. Severance agreements customarily contain releases of claims, waivers of rights, and covenants not to sue.

No matter the agreement, however, there is one clause that it cannot contain—a covenant by the employee waiving his or her right to file a charge of discrimination with the EEOC. Employees have an absolute right to seek vindication of their rights with the EEOC, and a requirement that an employee waive that right is retaliation. You can require that the employee waive his or her right to collect any money as a result of any charge filed with, or lawsuit filed by, the EEOC. Once you cross the line and mandate a waiver of the right to file a charge, you have retaliated.

In this case, this lesson cost BASF $500,000. The EEOC and I do not always see eye to eye. The lesson for employers to take away from this case, however, is valuable, and comes courtesy of the agency:

“The EEOC has an inherent, institutional interest in maintaining open lines of communication with people who believe they may be victims of discrimination,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago. “That is why employers who attempt to break that line of communication by dissuading employees from filing EEOC charges are breaking the law.  Courts get that, and with this case, we hope more employers will as well.”

The EEOC’s Chicago District Director John Rowe, added, “Cognis presented the victims in this case with a terrible, illegal choice: lose your job or lose your civil rights. Under the law, no worker has to make that kind of choice. Employers would be better served by working to ensure that their employees are free from discrimination, rather than threatening their workers with termination in an effort to make sure that employees don’t complain.”

This post originally appeared on The Legal Workplace Blog.