Great! You have an anti-harassment policy; now make sure all your employees can use it

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Your organization probably has policies prohibiting sexual harassment, and you probably offer training for supervisors and employees alike on how the policy works. But that simply isn’t enough.

What really matters is what happens once an employee picks up the phone or stops by HR to discuss potential sexual harassment. If you have placed any barriers in her way—even inadvertent ones—you may find out later that discouraging her means you lost an opportunity to fix the problem.

Recent case: “Jane Doe” sued her former employer, Hot Mama’s Foods, after quitting her job. Doe goes by a pseudonym because for several years she was an undocumented immigrant worker lacking legal papers allowing her to seek and hold employment. Her legal status was also at the heart of her subsequent lawsuit.

Doe claimed that the entire time she was working without papers, her direct supervisor coerced her into engaging in sexual activity and threatened her with discharge and deportation if she didn’t play along.

Hot Mama’s Foods has a sexual harassment policy that encourages reporting any harassment. All employees, including Doe, received a copy at hire and once per year after that. Doe, because she speaks mainly Spanish, even got a copy in her native language. Plus, Hot Mama’s conducted annual sexual harassment training for all employees, which Doe attended.

Eventually, Doe became eligible to work in the United States and no longer had to fear deportation. That’s when she called HR to complain about her supervisor’s behavior.

But, she would later testify, she got nowhere because no one in HR could converse with her in Spanish. Frustrated, she quit and sued.

Hot Mama’s argued that Doe hadn’t taken advantage of the company’s sexual harassment complaint process and therefore shouldn’t be allowed to sue. The court disagreed. It said that Doe’s language barrier meant she couldn’t effectively use the policy. (Doe v. Lansal Inc., and Sineni, No. 08-CV-5983, ND IL, 2009)

Final note: What seems to have happened in this case is that good intentions fell by the wayside as time went by. While Hot Mama’s had translated the policy into Spanish, it didn’t plan ahead for the inevitable time that a Spanish speaker would try to make a complaint.

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