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What do you do when the big boss is a harasser?

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

Issue: How to handle harassing behavior by your organization's top dogs.

Risk: Going easy on them will come back to haunt you; courts hold higher-ups to a higher standard than the rank and file.

Action: Don't be afraid to face down a harassing CEO, but approach the situation the right way.

It's easy to tell a mail clerk to knock off his harassing comments, but try telling the same thing to your CEO or other top dogs.

The truth is, though, it's even more important to stop raging CEOs in their tracks than lower-level employees. Courts will see your CEO as the organization's mouthpiece and may hold him or her to a higher standard.

If you know the harassment is occurring and you fail to try and stop it, you're opening the organization, and possibly yourself, to liability.

But instead of pointing a confrontational finger at the CEO's behavior, approach your concern a different way. Discuss your concern in light of protecting the organization from an expensive lawsuit and bad PR. Another option that's even better for your job security: Enlist the help of your outside counsel and have him or her do the talking. After all, it's your attorney's job to advise your organization of preventable risks.

Recent case: A CEO repeatedly referred to purchasing agent Jody Lee as a "bitch" and compared her work to that of male employees. He also made derogatory comments about women in general.

When Lee and two male employees were laid off, the two males were offered severance without having to sign a lawsuit waiver. Lee was told she had to sign to get her cash. She refused and sued for sex discrimination.

The company admitted the CEO made sexist comments but said no evidence connected those comments to the firing or severance decision. A district court sided with Lee, saying the CEO's remarks "show that he had little respect for women in the workplace." And that anti-female attitude was enough for the sex bias suit to go forward. (Lee v. Curt Manufacturing Inc., No. 03-C-523-C, W.D. Wisconsin, 2004)

Final point: While standing up to the boss's harassment isn't easy, you can find some comfort in this fact: Anti-retaliation laws protect your comments.

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