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Policy alone isn’t enough: Take the next steps to stamp out harassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Sexual harassment cases aren’t going away. Employers that don’t take such harassment seriously put their companies in peril.

It isn’t enough to come up with a policy (something most employers did at least 10 years ago). You must also train employees at every level about that policy and explain where harassment victims can go for help.

Then you have to follow through and promptly investigate harassment claims. Finally, you must make sure your response is good enough to end the harassment.

If you miss any of those steps, a sexual harassment lawsuit may be in your future.

Recent case: Lucy Rorrer worked for Cleveland Steel Container. Her work partner fed pieces of steel into the manufacturing equipment while Rorrer ran the machinery.

One day, according to Rorrer, the co-worker was using a box cutter to slice open a box filled with parts. Rorrer claimed the co-worker then pushed the open knife into her breast and had a look on his face that she said made her fear for her life.

The co-worker told a different story. He claimed the knife was closed and he merely poked her to get her attention in the noisy facility.

Rorrer complained to her immediate supervisor and he separated the two. Later, the co-worker with the knife was suspended for a few days. By that time, Rorrer claimed she was afraid for her life and quit.

Then she sued, alleging that the co-worker had a long history of staring at her breasts and had poked another woman in the breast with an electric screwdriver.

Cleveland Steel said Rorrer was exaggerating the incident and that she had never used the company sexual harassment policy to complain. But she claimed she had spoken with floor supervisors, who had promised action, but did nothing.

The court said the company couldn’t rely on its sexual harassment policy as a defense because many employees testified they didn’t know it existed or that they had never received training on how to handle complaints. The fact that no one in HR got an earlier complaint didn’t prove that Rorrer had unreasonably failed to report the prior problems. It might just have meant she didn’t know where to go.

In addition, the court said, management should have known there were problems because Rorrer reported the problems to immediate supervisors, who should have passed along the information. (Rorrer, et al., v. Cleveland Steel Container, No. 08-00671, ED PA, 2010)

Final note: It has now been well over a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court laid down the rules on sexual harassment. If your company drafted your first sexual harassment policy in response to the court’s guidelines, dust off that document and send it out to everyone with a reminder that sexual harassment won’t be tolerated. First, take the time to review your policy. Update it if necessary. Then train everyone (from the highest-level manager to the lowliest clerk) on what harassment is and how to report it.

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