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Put brakes on discipline when allegations of supervisor harassment seem credible

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It would be naïve to think your organization’s supervisors would never sexually harass subordinates. Despite training, court cases and strict anti-harassment policies, it still happens. And when it does, the cost can be devastating.

Here’s what to do when an em­­ployee—especially one far lower on the org chart than her supervisor—complains she’s being sexually har­­­­assed. Make sure you investigate thoroughly. Don’t approve any discipline recommended by the same supervisor until you have had a chance to verify or disprove the allegations. The only exception should be a thoroughly documented decision to discipline for obviously legitimate reasons.

Recent case: Katrina Okoli, who is black, went to work as an executive assistant for the director of a municipal agency. She took care of scheduling and other secretarial tasks. For the first few months, all went well.

Then Okoli says her boss started sexually harassing her—and she cited 12 separate incidents. For example, Okoli said her boss fondled her knee under the table at meetings. She said he often asked her to join him in a hot tub when the two traveled on business so that he could “live out” a fantasy. He allegedly told her about his sexual experiences and once asked Okoli to come to work without any underwear.

Okoli finally began complaining up the chain of command. Then, the same day her supervisor found out she was lodging complaints, he fired her. The alleged reasons? There was a typographical error in a document Okoli prepared and she had mishandled the email-based scheduling for a meeting the supervisor was supposed to attend.

She sued, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals ordered a trial.

It concluded that, based on the allegations, Okoli was certainly de­­scribing a hostile work environment and quid pro quo harassment—as well as retaliation. The justices said it hardly seemed legitimate that someone would fire a subordinate for two tiny mistakes. Plus, it said the timing was highly suspect. (Okoli v. City of Baltimore, et al., No. 08-2198, 4th Cir., 2011)

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