Michelle Johnson complained that her boss, a police chief, exposed himself, touched her inappropriately and verbally abused her. The employer launched an investigation.
Johnson saw the chief as he was coming out of his investigative interview and, believing he had lied about the allegations, she slapped him across the face.
The employer concluded that the chief was guilty of harassment, so it transferred him to a different department. Johnson, however, paid a bigger price for her slap. She was fired within four months for slapping the chief, who was eventually renamed to his former job. Johnson sued for sexual harassment.
Employers don't have to tolerate physical assaults, the court said; but comparing the two forms of discipline handed out here, it found that Johnson may have been discriminated against. Both incidents involved unwanted, harmful physical contact, but Johnson lost her job and the chief got his back. (Johnson v. West, No. 98-3903, 7th Cir. 2000)
Advice: You can defend yourself in sexual harassment cases by having a strong anti-harassment policy and taking quick, firm action against harassers. Another key element, however, includes handing out proportionate discipline.
In most cases, physical assault is enough to fire an employee. Here, however, the employer went wrong by only issuing a "slap on the wrist" to a harasser while firing the victim for one retaliatory outburst.