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Warn bosses: Hiding harassment will backfire

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Some low-level supervisors think a sexual harassment complaint will go away if they ignore it or get everyone except the victim to deny the allegations. It almost always backfires.

Here’s why: Courts are willing to let juries decide who is telling the truth, even if it is one worker’s word against many.

Recent case: Cynthia Berry was the Chicago Transit Authority’s (CTA) only female carpenter. During a work break, Berry sat at a picnic table with several other co-workers and experienced what she called sexual harassment.

A co-worker came up behind her, grabbed her by her breasts, lifted her up and rubbed her body against his chest and groin several times before dropping her and pushing her.

Berry went to her supervisor, who allegedly told her that she was “a pain in the butt” who might lose her job if she complained. He then allegedly told her, “Women aren’t the only ones who can file” sexual harassment complaints.

Berry took her complaint higher up the chain of command, and the CTA investigated. By then, she alleged, all her co-workers and her supervisor had fabricated their own version of events, placing all the blame on her.

When the authority chose to believe the others and not Berry—reasoning that it was her word against all the others—Berry sued.

First, the court concluded that the behavior she described, if true, would surely qualify as having created a sexually hostile work environment. The court went on to say that such a case can’t be dismissed just because the victim is the only one who claims events happened the way she said. The court ordered a jury trial to determine who is telling the truth. (Berry v. Chicago Transit Authority, No. 07-2288, 7th Cir., 2010)

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