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The Isiah Thomas Case: Why All Executives Need Sexual Harassment Training

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in Human Resources

If two-time NBA championship winning Hall of Famer Isiah Thomas is not above the law, then surely the CEO, president, or owner of your organization is not. That's the message you need to get across to top brass who don't take your anti-discrimination efforts seriously. If the executives in your organization are resistant to receiving sexual harassment training, use Thomas as an example of why they should care.

Last week, a jury decided that Thomas, coach and president of the NY Knicks, had sexually harassed former vice president of Marketing Anucha Browne Sanders. Browne Sanders had alleged that Thomas routinely called her a "bitch" and "ho," then later declared his love for her and made unwanted advances.

Thomas does not have to pay punitive damages, but the jury ordered Madison Square Garden to pay Browne Sanders $6 million for allowing a hostile work environment to exist and $2.6 million for retaliation; it ordered Garden chairman, president, and CEO James Dolan to pay $3 million for retaliation. The judge will determine compensatory damages next month, which could add another $10 million. (Browne Sanders v. Madison Square Garden LP, S.D.NY, No. 06 Civ. 589)


HR's Dilemma

HR is charged with enforcing company policies and keeping the company legally compliant by the very same executives who often act as though the rules don't apply to them. So the question is: How much can you push an exec who refuses to attend "mandatory" sexual harassment training? You can try to convince them by getting to the heart of their resistance.

"I don't have the time" / "I need to attend to more important business matters." How much time do they want to take to deal with a sexual harassment lawsuit? A deposition takes time. Testifying in court takes time. Meeting with lawyers takes time.

This is not to say that by merely attending a training session, a lawsuit will never arise. But training is just one part of showing that your organization made a good-faith effort to prevent harassment, and that can help make a lawsuit go away faster.

"I would never do anything illegal." Are they sure? Thomas stated in his deposition that it is not as bad for a black man to call a black woman "bitch" as it is for a white man to do so. Whether or not you agree with this distinction, the behavior is offensive, plain and simple. There's validity to race discrimination claims where the accuser and accused are of the same race, so why should sexual harassment be more acceptable where the accuser and accused are of the same race?

"It's part of the culture/environment." "Locker room talk" in a sports organization, go figure. Now, go figure that this ruling went against Thomas, et al.

Here's another example: An HR manager responded to questions about an employee's allegations of sexual harassment by stating: "This is a mill-type environment. If she doesn't like it here, she can go get a job somewhere else." Combined with other evidence of the HR manager's "reckless disregard" toward the complaining employee, a court upheld a jury award of $75,000 in punitive damages. (Parker v. General Extrusions, Inc., 6th Cir., No. 06-3353, 2007)

If organizations that are sports-centric, blue collar, or male-dominated (like the finance industry, which has certainly seen its share of sex discrimination and harassment lawsuits) can't get away with a "boys will be boys" attitude, neither can yours.

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