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High court case: If harassed workers talk, can they be fired?

A Tennessee woman lost her job after she cooperated in a company investigation.

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The US Supreme Court is set to hear a case this week that will provide important practical advice to workers asked to participate in an internal company investigation of alleged sexual harassment by a senior manager.

The question: Should you cooperate and speak freely, or remain silent?

"Be quiet if you want to keep your job," says Ann Buntin Steiner, a Nashville employment lawyer.

The issue arises in a case examining whether civil rights laws protect employees from retaliation by senior managers accused of sexual harassment.

The concern among employees is that if they speak freely and implicate a senior manager or supervisor in discriminatory conduct they will probably be subject to workplace retaliation by senior managers or supervisors.

The fear is not hypothetical. According to one study, 62 percent of state workers who complained of sexual harassment reported that they faced retaliation in the form of lowered job evaluations, denial of promotions, and being transferred or fired.

More than half of women in the US face some form of workplace sexual harassment, and most of them never report it, according to the National Women's Law Center.

Last term, the Supreme Court ruled for employees and against supervisors in two cases where workers lost their job or were otherwise punished after complaining about workplace discrimination. The high court held that civil rights laws protect workers from such retaliation.

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