It’s been over a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court laid down the law on what employers need to do to prevent and cure sexual harassment.
That’s long enough for complacency to have set in. By now, some employers may have started taking sexual harassment less seriously than they did when the court first ruled. That’s a potentially costly mistake.
The key to winning even the most outrageous sexual harassment cases is an effective harassment policy that employees know about and are encouraged to use.
Such a policy requires employees to take the first step of reporting alleged sexual harassment. Those who don’t take advantage of the reporting mechanism often lose the right to complain about the harassment later.
Recent case: Roderick Speigner worked for Shoal Creek Drummond Mine and claimed that his immediate supervisor had sexually harassed him and subjected him to unwanted advances, sexually oriented jokes and unwelcome touching.
Eventually, he sued Shoal Creek for sexual harassment.
But in court, Speigner was forced to admit he took his sweet time reporting the alleged harassment to anyone at the company as the company’s sexual harassment policy required. In fact, he didn’t report his concerns until long after the harassment allegedly began.
Shoal Creek’s policy set out exactly to whom and how he should have registered the complaint. Speigner conceded that he received a copy of the policy when he started working at the company and that subsequent training had reinforced how to use the policy.
Shoal Creek told the court that when Speigner eventually told a general manager about his problem, it immediately transferred him to another supervisor without any cut in pay or other benefits.
That was enough for the 11th Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss Speigner’s lawsuit. It reasoned that Shoal Creek had done everything right and wasn’t liable for the supervisor’s actions because Speigner could have and should have reported the problem earlier. (Speigner v. Shoal Creek Drummond Mine, No. 09-15483, 11th Cir., 2010)
Final note: The only kind of sexual harassment you can’t fix is harassment by a supervisor that includes an adverse employment action.
But every other form of harassment has an escape hatch built in: a solid anti-harassment policy that includes a clear method to report harassment followed by a prompt and thorough investigation and action to end the harassment.