If you think ignoring even a single sexual harassment complaint is fine, think again. If the EEOC gets wind of the complaint and finds out you ignored it, the result could be a huge lawsuit.
That’s because the agency can legally use one employee’s claim to launch a companywide investigation. If it finds widespread sexual harassment, it can—and frequently does—file a lawsuit.
That’s why you must take every harassment complaint seriously. Investigate immediately. If you uncover sexual harassment, fix the problem—but not just for the one employee who complained. Look at your entire sexual harassment policy and the practices you use to enforce it.
Do employees know about your policy? Are they encouraged to report problems? Have you made sure supervisors understand that they’re forbidden to retaliate if an employee complains? Do you make it a habit to follow up with each employee who complains, to make sure there is no retaliation?
Recent case: When a former Burger King employee complained to the EEOC that she had been sexually harassed at one of the chain’s restaurants in Glens Falls, N.Y., the EEOC sprang into action. As part of its efforts to stop sexual harassment against teenage employees, the agency began looking at more than 350 Burger King restaurants in 16 states.
The agency eventually sued, alleging that the fast food chain ignored sexual harassment perpetrated against teen workers by both supervisors and co-workers.
Burger King argued that it had a sexual harassment policy in place and that many of the teen workers who were part of the massive lawsuit had actually signed an acknowledgment that they had received a copy of the policy. Therefore, they should have known to complain about alleged sexual harassment instead of just putting up with it.
The court didn’t buy that argument. In fact, it concluded that while many of the employees said they signed for the policy, no one actually handed them a copy or explained the policy. Therefore, the court reasoned, the company couldn’t rely on the policy as a defense. The employees didn’t really know what to do if they were harassed.
It was a harassment policy in theory, not practice.
The EEOC’s lawsuit also alleged that the few teens who did complain to their supervisors suffered retaliation. For example, several teens said after they complained, they were assigned to more difficult or dirtier jobs or had their hours cut. Others saw their hours changed to less convenient times. Still others claimed they were fired shortly after complaining.
The court said all their claims could go to trial. (EEOC v. Carolls Corporation, 5:98-CV-1772, ND NY, 2011)
Final note: Here’s how to make sure you can prove employees actually received a copy of the policy. If you use paper copies, number each and assign a specific copy to each employee. If you make the policy accessible online, have employees acknowledge they got a copy by clicking a radio button. Then, have them take a quick online quiz after reading the policy and save the results.
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