Issue: Courts may hold your harassment-prevention efforts to a higher standard when young workers are involved.
Risk: Big court judgments, ugly PR and damaged morale.
Action: Train all new hires on harassment rules. Reissue policies often. Provide multiple outlets to file complaints.
When a supervisor harasses an employee, you can usually avoid liability by proving that your company has sound anti-harassment policies and practices, and that the employee failed to take advantage of them.
But courts may view especially young workers differently when it comes to the issue of harassment, affording them more leeway if they fail to use your company's harassment-reporting procedures. As a result, you must go the extra mile to prevent your youngest staff members from being harassed.
3 steps to take
- Regularly reissue your policies on harassment and retaliation.
- Conduct anti-harassment training with all new hires, paying special attention to young workers and entry-level staff.
- Make sure workers understand that the buck doesn't stop with their supervisor; give them multiple channels to air potential problems.
Recent case: A 17-year-old employee claimed her 34-year-old supervisor repeatedly made sexual comments to her, a situation that became worse when the supervisor sexually assaulted her after a baby-sitting job at his house. The supervisor told her to keep quiet, saying they both would be fired if she reported his actions. He also told her that his father had influence with the company owner.
She kept quiet and quit but eventually returned to the company. When the harassment started again, the employee sued, charging sexual harassment. A lower court tossed out the case, saying the employee didn't use the proper complaint process. But a federal appeals court let the case go to trial.
Court's reasoning: Considering the girl's age and the retaliation threats, a jury could conclude that she had a logical reason for not reporting the harassment earlier. (Reed v. MBNA Marketing Systems Inc., No. 02-2705, 1st Cir., 2003)
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- With handbook warning, it's OK to deviate from policy
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