After Tammy Blakey sued Continental Airlines for sexual harassment, her co-workers used an online bulletin board to post derogatory gender-based messages about her abilities as a pilot. In response, Blakey launched another lawsuit charging Continental with a hostile work environment caused by the e-mail postings.
Continental didn't own the Crew Members Forum. The company had created a computer system for crew members to check their flight schedules. One way to access the system was through the CompuServe Internet service, which also offered the electronic forum as an additional service.
A lower court threw out the case, saying Continental didn't have any control over the forum. But, in a ruling that The National Law Journal called "groundbreaking," the New Jersey Supreme Court reinstated the hostile environment claim, saying an e-mail bulletin board is a "setting related to the workplace" and employers can be on the hook for cyberspace harassment.
The high court said Continental didn't have a duty to monitor the messages. But once the company found out that employees were harassing a co-worker on the forum, it had a duty to fix the situation. (Blakey v. Continental Airlines Inc., No. A-5-99, N.J. Sup. Ct., 2000)
Advice: This decision expands your liability for sexual harassment into online communications. While it doesn't require you to monitor all employee communications, you do need to take quick action if you discover harassment is taking place via the Internet or e-mail. Launch an immediate investigation, and don't assume the activity is limited to only a few people, as e-mail often leaves trails throughout a company.
Also, your sexual harassment policy should prohibit harassment via any electronic system. Handbooks should spell out the unacceptable behavior and place employees on notice that your company can and will monitor Internet and e-mail use.