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Consider all options: When co-worker harasses, termination isn’t the only way to avoid liability

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in HR Management

The key to handling any kind of harassment case involving co-workers is to immediately investigate the allegations and follow up with solutions designed to stop the mis­behavior.

But those solutions don’t always have to include terminating the har­assing co-worker. Suspensions, training and other remedial actions may be enough—especially if the guilty co-worker clearly understands that the behavior was inappropriate and is unlikely to repeat the mistake.

Recent case: Rasheen Griffin, who is black, worked as a security officer for Harrisburg Property Services. He worked with another security officer who is white.

The co-worker made three comments to Griffin over several months that Griffin found increasingly offensive. First, the other security officer said, “the reason we have black people is because God left [them] in the oven too long.” A month later, he told Griffin that the reason “we have AIDS is because a black man had sex with a monkey in Africa.”

But the final incident, which convinced Griffin he should complain to HR, was a text message that the co-worker sent while off-duty (other Harrisburg Property employees ­received it, too). The text passed along a bad joke that again involved God, who this time gave wings to several black babies. When the ­babies asked if that meant they were angels, God replied that it did not. Instead, it meant that they were bats.

Griffin confronted the co-worker, who immediately recognized he had crossed a line and begged Griffin to delete the text message and not report the incident.

The pleas didn’t persuade Griffin and he contacted HR, which immediately launched an investigation. HR learned about the other incidents and concluded the best approach was to meet with employees and explain that the behavior had to stop immediately. Plus, Griffin was allowed to transfer to another location of his choice and his offensive co-worker was ­issued a final warning.

Griffin sued for harassment anyway.

But the court dismissed his case. It reasoned that Harrisburg Property Services had acted properly by investigating, educating and warning the co-worker, and by removing Griffin from the environment. That was enough under the circumstances. (Griffin v. Harrisburg Property Serv­ices, No. 10-1053, 3rd Cir., 2011)

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