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When employee claims co-worker harassment, investigate promptly, act reasonably

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

If you respond quickly to sexual harassment complaints involving co-workers, you’ll seldom have to worry about coming out on the losing end of a sexual harassment lawsuit. As long as you respond reasonably, courts will defer to your best judgment—especially if the problem seems to have been resolved.

Recent case: Maria Sutherland worked for Walmart in the deli section with a male co-worker. They got along fine for a long time until the man allegedly lured her into the walk-in refrigerator. There he gave her a romantic Christmas card … and then kissed her, grabbed her and groped her breast. Sutherland got away and immediately complained.

She was allowed to go home early while managers interviewed co-workers about the incident. The witnesses couldn’t verify what happened in the cooler, but did say they believed the card was inappropriate. And the male co-worker admitted he gave her the card along with a hug, but denied groping her.

Based on its investigation, Walmart managers suspended the man for a day and warned him to stay away from Sutherland.

Meanwhile, Sutherland reported the incident to the police. They polygraphed the co-worker, who admitted he had indeed grabbed Sutherland’s breast against her wishes. That’s when Walmart fired him for lying about his conduct.

Sutherland sued, alleging sexual harassment. But the court said that under the circumstances, Walmart acted reasonably by quickly investigating the allegations and taking almost immediate action. (Sutherland v. Wal-Mart, No. 10-2214, 7th Cir., 2011)

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