Elizabeth Smith got hit with a double whammy: a harassing boss and a company that didn't take it seriously. In the end, the company's lax response cost it big-time.
Smith's supervisor, Ronald Scoggins, spewed his anti-woman rhetoric at many female workers, including Smith. Often, his behavior was threatening. He'd stand over Smith in her cubicle, barking orders that ended with "or else you'll see what will happen to you."
When she chose not to remain on his work team, the incidents escalated. She accused him of grabbing her chair, spinning her to face him and saying he could "see why a man would slit a woman's throat," a reference to the O.J. Simpson trial. His tone of voice and previous bragging about having to "take people out" while in the military contributed to her fear.
The company's response was riddled with mistakes. How?
- Smith hesitated to complain because a previous supervisor advised her never to complain to Human Resources if she "ever wanted to get anywhere."
- She didn't think her boss's behavior rose to the level of sexual harassment because, based on the wording in the company policy, she thought a sexual advance was needed to constitute harassment.
- When she finally did complain, the company's investigation focused on Scoggins' style, ignoring the sexually harassing remarks. He got 90 days probation, plus counseling to improve his management style. He was also advised to "smile more."
- Although she was transferred to a separate team from Scoggins, she was placed where she would likely run into him daily.
Smith finally sued for sexual harassment. A district court dismissed the case, but the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed her to go forward. (Smith v. First Union National Bank, No. 98-2200, 4th Cir., 2000)
Advice: Make sure your sexual harassment policy is broad enough to cover all forms of gender harassment. Provide specific examples of inappropriate behavior. The policy should give employees confidence to report any behavior they consider offensive and assurance that no retaliatory actions will be taken. Once bad conduct is reported, take immediate action to prevent further harassment, including separating the two employees.
In addition, don't confuse illegal behavior with a manager's "style problem." This company tried to put a Band-Aid on a major wound, and it paid the price.