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Beware setting up employees for embarrassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employers have an obligation: Use their best efforts to create a workplace environment free of sexual and other illegal harassment. That means managers and supervisors should always consider “what if” before they push employees into difficult situations.

Consider, for example, what happened when several male firefighters were ordered to ride on a firetruck as part of a gay pride parade.

Recent case: John Ghiotto and three other members of the San Diego Fire-Rescue Department were ordered to drive and ride on a firetruck as part of the city’s annual LGBT Pride Parade.

As they rode the truck, some members of the public behaved badly, exposing themselves, making sexual comments and generally making the four fire department employees very uncomfortable. For example, some parade spectators called out for the men to show their “hoses” and made other lewd requests.

They sued, alleging that when the fire department assigned them to ride in the parade, it knew they would become targets of sexual harassment.

A jury agreed and ordered the city to pay between $5,000 and $14,200 to each of the employees who had been offended by having to participate in the parade—plus more than $500,000 in costs and attorneys’ fees. (Ghiotto, et al., v. City of San Diego, No. D055029, Court of Appeal of California, 4th Appellate District, 2010)

Final note: In this case, the employees were not providing essential services to the public. They likely would have had no case if they had been called to the scene of a fire and were harassed as they carried out their duties. Instead, their claim was that their employer essentially set them up for ridicule and harassment.

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