It’s crucial for front-line supervisors to report alleged race harassment up the chain of command. That’s because courts will inevitably conclude that when an employee complains about harassment to the boss, that puts the company on notice that it had better investigate the problem and fix it.
Recent case: Bernard Pearson and several other black employees at a fiberglass factory complained to their supervisor that white co-workers used racial epithets when addressing them. For almost a year, the boss did nothing.
Finally, when things didn’t get better, Pearson and the others complained higher up. That’s when the company responded, conducting a thorough investigation and suspending several employees. It also made all employees take intensive training.
Even so, someone hung a noose in the plant. Again, the company investigated, but couldn’t determine who was responsible. Nonetheless, it warned all employees that if anyone was caught, he or she would be immediately terminated. Only then did the problems finally stop.
Pearson and his co-workers sued anyway.
But the court limited their lawsuit to the period between their initial complaint to the plant supervisor and their later complaint to higher-level managers, concluding that after that complaint, the company did everything it reasonably could to stop the harassment. (EEOC v. Xerxes, No. 10-1156, 4th Cir., 2011)
Final notes: Don’t hesitate to act right away after learning that a supervisor may have sat on a harassment complaint. You can’t fix the past, but you can limit liability going forward.
To get supervisors to take harassment seriously, include commitment to a nondiscriminatory workplace in theircriteria. Follow up if anyone falls short.