Quick action cuts sexual harassment liability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management

You can’t prevent every vulgar act an employee may commit. But you can and should act fast when you learn about misbehavior. Doing so can keep a minor problem from growing into a major one.

Remember, a single incident that doesn’t involve outrageous behavior or a physical assault typically isn’t sexual harassment in the eyes of the court—unless the employer ignores the incident and allows the problem to escalate.

Recent case: Donna Johnson worked as a custodian at a Xerox facility. One day while she was cleaning a men’s restroom, a male employee entered despite the “closed for cleaning” sign. He approached a urinal, unzipped and urinated.

Johnson became upset and exclaimed, “Oh my God!” The man told her that in Europe, the cleaners just worked around him when he had to use the facilities. She responded, “This is America!” and rushed out.

Johnson then complained to HR about sexual harassment and said she felt demeaned by the man’s behavior. Xerox counseled the man about his behavior and Johnson was transferred to another building.

She sued anyway, alleging sexual harassment.

Xerox said it had done every­thing appropriate under the circumstances and that its actions were successful in preventing an escalation of the situation. It also argued that a single incident like this one—which it said did not involve any sort of demeaning behavior, even if using the urinal might have been in bad taste—did not constitute sexual harassment. The court agreed and dismissed the case. (Johnson v. Xerox, No. 08-CV-6565, WD NY, 2011)

Final note: This case highlights an unfortunate reality. Em­ployees can and do sue over minor annoy­ances. Responding to even frivolous litigation takes time and money. There’s only so much you can do to prevent lawsuits.

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