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Invest a little in harassment training upfront to avoid sky-high litigation costs later

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

If you do nothing else during training sessions, at least impress upon supervisors and managers the costly mess that can result if they allow any sort of harassment or retaliation in their departments.

And remind them that it doesn’t matter if employee complaints fail to stand up in court. Even if you win a harassment or retaliation lawsuit, you will have spent countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars defending against accusations that should never have surfaced in the first place.

Recent case: Jane Caldwell went to work for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). There, she quickly discovered what she considered sexism and sexual harassment. For example, sometimes suggestive e-mail printouts would appear on her office chair while she was away. Other times, a male colleague would sit in her office, wearing bright yellow short shorts that gave her a view she would rather not have had to take in.

Caldwell and several other women also began to notice what they later said was a rampant anti-women bias. They complained that women who spoke up were called “bitches.”

Following the agency’s sexual harassment and discrimination policy, Caldwell and the other women went to the internal equal employment opportunity officer with their complaints.

Within a few weeks, the supervisor was reassigned and a woman replaced him. Over the next few months, others higher up in the supervisory chain were also reassigned, so that no one who might have been part of any possible anti-female, old-boys network had supervisory power over the women.

The agency also started an intensive series of sexual harassment training sessions, complete with harassment examples. It also sent all employees e-mails with specific examples of illegal harassment as part of the new education drive.

But Caldwell’s troubles didn’t end. Some of her male co-workers seemed intent on irritating her by stopping by her office and trying to discuss “scientific papers” on various sexual topics.

She sued, alleging a hostile work environment and sexual harassment. That case made it to the appeals court level before being dismissed because the EPA had promptly fixed the sexual harassment problem.

But Caldwell had also charged retaliation, a claim that was sent back down for another round of litigation. The complaint was based on Caldwell’s claim that when she was transferred, she had to work for six months in an essentially bare office with no direct telephone line, voice mail, network access and necessary computer software—all conditions, Caldwell argued, that would cause a reasonable employee to avoid complaining about sexual harassment or any other form of discrimination in the first place.

The EPA then asked to open the record so it could show that the time frame was not as long as Caldwell claimed. The trial court rejected the EPA’s request, reasoning that it should have thought about the evidence sooner since it knew all along Caldwell was alleging retaliation. Her case will go forward. (Caldwell v. Jackson, No. 1:03-00707, MD NC, 2010)

Final note: This case will probably go up on appeal yet again. Had the agency been vigilant and prevented the alleged harassment in the first place, all this expense would have been spared.

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