Promoting lower-level employees to supervisory roles, even if it's on a temporary or "acting" basis, can backfire if you fail to educate them on their new legal responsibilities. That's what happened when Michelle Aman, a receptionist-turned-office coordinator, was asked to fill in for a clinic's manager when the manager was periodically out of the office.
Aman had been aware that a nurse, Vera Sims, was being subjected to episodes of sexual harassment by one of the clinic's doctors. Three months after the harassment began, and while Aman was in her "acting" manager role, Sims asked Aman to help catch the doctor in the act. After that plan failed, Sims asked Aman to talk to the doctor about the harassment, but Aman said she was "too scared." Instead, Aman reported the complaint to the clinic's manager the next day. Within a week, the company advised the doctor of the complaint and started an investigation.
Sims agreed to a transfer to another clinic, but later sued for retaliation, sexual harassment and negligence. A district court sided with the company, saying there wasn't enough evidence that Aman had the authority to act on sexual harassment claims.
But an appeals court disagreed and kept Sims' case alive. The court said that if Aman knew about the harassment, had the authority and failed to act, then the employer would be responsible. But both courts said Sims couldn't prove she was retaliated against. (Sims v. Health Midwest Physician Services Corp., No. 99-1627WM, 8th Cir., 1999)
Advice: When you decide who your managers are, even if they're only in that role temporarily, look at workplace reality, not job titles. Take special care whenauthority. Without proper training, these workers may not realize the consequences of their failure to report claims of sexual harassment or may be afraid of higher-ranking employees.
Also, realize that "awareness" of harassment can trigger liability, even if there is never any complaint. That's because awareness plus a failure to act can equal failure to prevent and correct a problem. Train all your managers to notify human resources when they are aware of harassment.
From the time the harassment was officially reported, the employer acted quickly. But the problem was that Aman knew about the doctor's misbehavior for months before that.