It doesn’t take much for employers to become liable for sexual harassment once someone in authority knows (or should have known) about the probability that harassment will occur. Actual knowledge that harassment has occurred isn’t necessary. In fact, liability can be triggered by something as minor as an employee’s comment that she is “uncomfortable” around a co-worker.
That’s why supervisors need to keep their antenna up for such comments from employees at work and even at social events. Managers should report what they hear to HR right away. Then HR should immediately start an investigation. Otherwise, a jury may second-guess your failure to act.
Recent case: Georgia Erickson, a payroll specialist for the Wisconsin prison system, worked in the same complex as an all-male minimum-security prison. When Erickson was alone one evening, she came across an inmate with a poor disciplinary record who was working as a janitor in the building. She left because he made her uncomfortable.
Erickson went from work to the office Christmas party, where she mentioned to the warden and others that the janitor made her uncomfortable. They told her that she’d never be alone with the janitor again, but they never took action.
The following week, Erickson found herself alone with the janitor again. This time he brutally raped her.
She sued, alleging she had warned her employer that a sexually hostile environment was brewing, yet they did nothing. The court sided with Erickson, saying her employers were negligent by not protecting her from risk she had warned them about. (Erickson v. Wisconsin Department of Corrections, No. 05-4516, 7th Cir., 2006)