Can an employer force an employee to agree that his complaints have been adequately addressed? On April 26, the EEOC announced that Downhole Technology LLC will pay a former employee $120,000 and provide other relief after it terminated an employee who refused to do just that.
In Equal Opportunity Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Downhole Technology LLC, Kenneth Echols, an African-American employee, reported that white coworkers wore white hoods similar to those used by the Ku Klux Klan to intimidate him. After the report, Echols later reported that those same employees physically and verbally threatened him.
The EEOC alleged that, instead of addressing the reported incidents, Downhole asked Echols to sign an agreement stating that he had not been harassed because of his race and that Downhole had adequately addressed his concerns. When Echols refused, Downhole terminated him despite a prior unblemished employment record.
The EEOC filed suit against Downhole alleging violations of Title VII. Shortly after the lawsuit was filed and after extensive negotiations, the EEOC and the company resolved the claim which led to a two-year consent decree. Under that decree, Downhole Technology must:
- Pay Echols $120,000 in monetary relief;
- Give Echols a job recommendation by a senior level manager;
- Not discuss, mention, or allude to Echols’ charge of discrimination;
- Exclude any information regarding the charge of discrimination from Echols’ personnel file;
- Designate and train a liaison to conduct annual training on employees’ rights under Title VII and avoiding unlawful discrimination in the workplace;
- Adopt an anti-discrimination policy that meets minimum requirements as set out in the decree; and
- Maintain a toll-free telephone number for employees to report any alleged discrimination.
Obviously, we don’t know what exactly happened in this case—only what the plaintiff and the EEOC alleged. However, as reported in the complaint, this case is a cautionary tale about how NOT to conclude a harassment investigation. Although, an employer has the right to ask for a waiver of past employment claims in exchange for severance payments when the relationship is ending, the significant fact here is that the employee would have continued to be employed with his complaints of harassment allegedly unaddressed to his satisfaction. Even under these alleged facts, Downhole could have just agreed to disagree with Mr. Echols—who could have then filed his harassment complaint while he continued as an employee. Downhole could then have defended the harassment complaint based on its investigation and the fact that it had stopped the conduct as soon as it was brought to its attention. Significantly, it may have been able to avoid the retaliation claim.