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 legal headache.
As the response by Xerox managers in the following case shows, 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 responded by immediately counseling the man about his behavior. It then transferred Johnson to another building.
She sued anyway, alleging sexual harassment.
The court dismissed the case, noting that Xerox had done everything appropriate under the circumstances and its actions were successful in preventing an escalation of the situation. A single incident like this one—which involved bad taste but not any sort of demeaning behavior—did not constitute sexual harassment. (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.
Online resource: What counts as harassment and how do your sort through employees’ contradictory stories? Read Investigating Harassment: How to Determine Credibility for free at www.theHRSpecialist.com/whitepaper.
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