Ordinarily, managers who have the authority to make personnel decisions aren’t held personally liable for sexual harassment under Title VII. But that’s not necessarily the case under the New York State Human Rights Law (NYSHRL).
If you’re an HR professional with the power to make recommendations on hiring applicants or firing employees, make sure you don’t ignore sexual harassment claims that come your way. Also make sure you enforce policies designed to prevent sexual harassment in the first place.
If you don’t, you could be found personally liable for harassment that you should have known was taking place.
Recent case: Maxine Phanco worked for a restaurant jointly owned by Russell Riddell and his wife, Mary Jo. Phanco said a sexually hostile environment forced her to quit in disgust and fear. She sued. Phanco said Russell Riddell touched her, called her pretty, described how he wanted to have sex with her and finally lured her to a secluded area of the restaurant where he grabbed and fondled her before she was able to get away.
When Phanco sued the restaurant for harassment, she said she complained several times to HR, but the abuse hadn’t stopped. Mary Jo Riddell, who was named separately as a defendant, asked to be dismissed from the lawsuit because she said she had no knowledge of the alleged harassment.
The court refused to do so, reasoning that under NYSHRL, she could be liable either as an owner or as a supervisor with the power to hire and fire Phanco. It didn’t matter whether she had actually exercised that power or knew what was going on. (Phanco, et al., v. R.J.M. Restaurant, et al., No. 07-CV-687, WD NY, 2010)