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Want to catch harassment? Go looking for it

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

More than a decade after the U.S. Supreme Court decided its biggest sexual harassment and hostile work-environment cases, women are still filing and winning sexual harassment lawsuits. Many of them could easily have been prevented had HR and upper-level management taken regular, surprise walks through the factory floor and other work areas.

Recent case: Lynnette Harris worked as an electrician for a large municipal government—and was one of the few women working in a male-dominated profession. Things went well enough until Harris found herself transferred to the city’s electric motor shop under a new supervisor.

At the shop, Harris saw pictures of scantily clad and nude women on walls, in cubicles and even under the protective glass that covered the break-room table. She also heard the words “troublemaker,” “bitch,” “whore” and worse almost daily. She complained to her supervisor, who then called a group meeting.

It didn’t go well. At the meeting, a co-worker called Harris a bitch. When she objected, the co-worker asked their boss whether there was a rule against using the word. When told there was not, he then continued calling Harris a bitch.

Harris complained to HR, which conducted an inspection. Sure enough, the city decreed that the posters had to come down and the name-calling had to stop.

Then Harris sued, alleging a sexually hostile work environment.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a trial, concluding that the environment Harris described could certainly be considered sexually hostile. (Harris v. Mayor of Baltimore, et al., No. 09-1446, 4th Cir., 2011)

Final note: The city may be liable because it could have prevented the problem with training and earlier inspections.

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