Harassment Investigations Must Be ‘Fundamentally Fair’ to the Accused

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Firing,Human Resources

When a sexual harassment accusation arises, employers often move into crisis mode. But don't try to push the problem off your plate by quickly jettisoning the employee via a kangaroo court.

Sexual harassment investigations should be fairly concise (see box below). But they also must be fair to the accused employee, or else a court could deem your rush-to-judgment actions as proof of liability. The following case shows how important it is to gather the right proof before taking action.

Recent case: Hector Rivera-Garcia was hired on a one-year contract to serve as a department director at a private university. Rivera-Garcia was disabled and had trouble walking, so he requested accommodations, including moving meetings to the building's ground floor.

Toward the end of his contract, and before he had signed a two-year extension, a female secretary claimed that Rivera-Garcia sexually harassed her. The university immediately launched an investigation and fired Rivera-Garcia based on the results. He filed a sexual harassment suit, claiming the harassment charge was just a smoke screen for firing him due to his disability.

The court tossed out his case, noting that the school's investigation discovered that two female professors also believed that Rivera-Garcia made inappropriate comments to them.

Bottom line: Sexual harassment hearings must be "fundamentally fair" to the accused, the court said. It noted that "a kangaroo proceeding, devoid of any fairness, to evaluate a trumped-up sexual harassment charge" would be unfair. But that wasn't the case here. (Rivera-Garcia v. Sistema Universitario Ana Mendez, No 05-1659, 1st Cir., 2006)

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