Here’s a big benefit to having a strong anti-harassment policy: The policy’s very existence helps protect employers against false claims.
That’s because employees won’t be able to say they endured years of harassment and didn’t know how or to whom to report it. Instead, it will become plain fairly quickly that the allegations may not be true. After all, why would the employee tolerate harassment without complaining?
The key is making sure employees know about your policy.
Recent case: Marise Bury worked as a loader for Sky Chefs, a company that provides food and beverage services for airlines. Bury, a black woman of Haitian descent, loaded beverages and food onto carts on a production line. She was frequently written up for, which was almost always followed by her own complaint that her co-workers were the ones who didn’t know how to do their jobs.
Sky Chefs provided Bury with a copy of its harassment policy and guidelines when she began work. However, she never used the policy to complain about anything, even though she had no apparent trouble complaining about her co-workers’ work performance.
Then a co-worker injured Bury on the job, something she considered to be racially motivated. She went out on workers’ compensation leave and returned later to a light-duty position. Her final assignment involved wrapping knives, forks and spoons in linen napkins.
One day, a supervisor approached Bury and other flatware wrappers to discuss paperwork they needed to complete. Bury became agitated and started yelling obscenities. She then threw a napkin at the supervisor.
Bury was fired for insubordination. She sued, alleging that the entire time she worked for Sky Chefs, she had endured racial slurs and abuse.
She said co-workers had called her a “black Haitian,” “black toilet paper,” a “f___ing Haitian” and a “black ass” countless times.
But no one else at Bury’s workplace recalled any such slurs. And she could not explain why she hadn’t complained about harassment when she knew there was a mechanism for doing so. That was enough for the court to dismiss her claim. (Bury v. Sky Chefs, No. 10-CV-20469, SD FL, 2011)
Advice: Make sure employees know about your harassment policy. Don’t assume they will remember information presented during new-employee orientation. Instead, provide a copy of the policy with each handbook you distribute. Regularly remind employees about the policy by mentioning it in employee newsletters or through regular e-mail reminders.
Provide several ways for employees to lodge harassment complaints, so they can bypass their supervisor if they feel that’s necessary. Designate someone in HR to take complaints.
Develop a process to track those complaints, too. That way, you’ll be able to tell a court later that you reviewed all complaints—and identify employees who never bothered to complain.
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