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When supervisor’s harassment is serious, make sure the punishment fits the crime

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When a supervisor harasses a subordinate, there will be litigation.

Employers that don’t take swift action when they learn of possible harassment have only themselves to blame. Being too timid when it comes to punishing the supervisor is not a good idea.

Whatever you do, don’t even think about transferring the harassed subordinate into a position with fewer responsibilities.

Instead, move the harasser—or even terminate him. Otherwise, a jury may find that your response to the complaint and the problem were ineffectual and make you pay for your mistake, as happened in this case.

Recent case: Hilda Negrete went to work for the city of Laredo as a deputy secretary. Her supervisor was the city secretary.

Laredo has a sexual harassment policy that provides several ways for employees to file complaints.

Negrete complained to the designated sexual harassment officer that her supervisor was sexually harassing her. She said he sent her flowers at work, would hug her, told jokes of a sexual nature and once superimposed her face on the body of a scantily clad model. Plus, Negrete said her supervisor once climbed onto the back of a female intern who was bending over and pretended to ride her like a horse.

Then, Negrete said, she went home after filing her internal complaint and found a note from her supervisor. Frightened, she spent the night in a hotel and returned home the next morning to get ready for work. Her supervisor was waiting for her, so she called the police.

The city investigated the complaint and concluded the supervisor had violated city sexual harassment policies. He was suspended without pay for 30 days, had to attend sexual harassment training and was ordered to apologize to Negrete.

Meanwhile, with the goal of separating the two, Negrete was transferred to another position with few responsibilities.

She sued, alleging she had been forced to work in a hostile environment. A jury agreed, awarding her $725,000 in damages and attorneys’ fees. The city appealed, arguing that it had investigated the complaint and solved the problem.

The court disagreed. It said the city was responsible for the supervisor’s conduct, which it viewed as egregious. (City of Laredo v. Negrete, No. 04-08-00737, Court of Appeals of Texas, 4th District, 2010)

Final notes: Remember, you’re almost always responsible if a supervisor harasses a subordinate. There are very few ways to avoid liability unless you can show that the subordinate didn’t take advantage of your sexual harassment policy and didn’t lodge a complaint.

Your best bet is vigilance. Keep your eyes and ears open for trouble. Don’t ignore rumblings about pornographic images and the like. Instead, be proactive. And don’t hesitate to make an example of a harasser. Punish offenders severely enough to stop the behavior and warn others that you take the conduct seriously. A 30-day unpaid suspension doesn’t cut it.

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