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A recent article in the Des Moines Register reported on an employer who was sued for bullying or a hostile work environment related to President Donald Trump’s stance on immigration. The employee who sued is an American citizen of Hispanic ethnicity and was offended by the president’s comments regarding Mexican immigrants. She alleged that in response, her Caucasian coworkers set out to “tease” her with screensaver images of the president and taunts that she was “illegal”—and they even signed her up as a volunteer for the president’s campaign. The case was resolved without a public trial, so we have only one side of the story. However, the story is a useful training tool.

Depending on your company’s culture, the problem might seem difficult—is it political speech because the issues are tied to politics? Private employers can suppress speech, even political speech and speech protected by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Is it immature and inappropriate for work but otherwise harmless? Everyone probably agrees that it’s immature and shouldn’t occur while employees are on the clock. But is it discrimination that creates a hostile work environment? It very well could be.


If This Were Your Office, What Would You Do?

Did you know? Employers generally cannot act to remedy a situation unless they know about it. Usually, they learn when an employee makes a report or complaint. Otherwise, they learn because the behavior is out in the open and they would have to know because they can see or hear it.

Investigate. Once you “know,” you must investigate in a timely and neutral manner. That means you must interview the person who is the subject of the teasing and hear her side. You must interview the accused and ask probing questions.

In the recent news story, the employer should have spoken with all witnesses who heard the employee being called “illegal.” It should have asked if she saved the screensaver images and whether the IT department could figure out if there was a way to determine who changed the images and when. It should have asked for copies of e-mails or documents corroborating that she was signed up for Trump’s campaign. It should have considered whether it was important to record the interviews and whether the investigator should have been someone outside the company.

Remedy. Once your investigation is complete, it’s time to plan how you will respond. Were the employee’s complaints substantiated? If so, it might be time for discipline. If the employees who took part are management, then maybe they earned a demotion for their behavior. Perhaps they earned termination. Or maybe there’s reason to believe that they can be rehabilitated and trained in a way that saves their jobs and upholds your antidiscrimination policy. Another possibility is that none of the employee’s complaints can be corroborated. Perhaps you close the investigation without further action.


Regardless of the decision, you should follow the investigation and take action necessary to uphold your antidiscrimination obligations under your policies and Iowa law.

Prevent retaliation. Retaliation is illegal but is extremely common. Take steps to ensure the person making the complaint isn’t retaliated against.

Bottom Line

Although employees invent “new” ways to create personnel issues in the workplace, returning to the basics can often solve the matter.