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Hey, customers! Guess what? We are sexual harassers!

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

Do you have to tell your customers if you’re slapped with a sexual harassment verdict? You soon might have to.

In a startling new court ruling, a judge in Illinois required a company to distribute a notice to its customers informing them of the $1 million sexual harassment verdict levied against it and reaffirming its commitment to equal opportunity employment in the workplace. The company also had to post a notice in the workplace informing all of its employees. (EEOC v. Custom Cos., No. 2 C 3768, N.D. Ill., 3/8/07)

“Make no mistake about it, this is a big decision. It’s really important,” said John Hendrickson, the EEOC’s regional attorney in Chicago.

The danger: Judges in other states may decide to use the same customer notification tactic when punishing employers in harassment cases.

And that’s bad news because your organization wants to announce to customers its vision ... not its verdicts.

‘Reprehensible’ actions

In a 50-page opinion, the court characterized the company’s behavior as “reprehensible,” based on a “sexually charged atmosphere” of touching, sexual advances, sexually explicit comments and jokes.

While this court cut the original jury verdict of $2.3 million in half, it also put a chokehold on the company by granting the bulk of the plaintiffs’ requests for nine nonmonetary penalties against the company. The company will be on the court’s closely watched radar screen for the next four years.

In addition to notifying its customers and employees of the verdict, the company was ordered to:

  1. Notify the EEOC of any sexual harassment complaint within 30 days.
  2. Report to the EEOC every six months concerning all complaints made, and list all individuals terminated.
  3. Provide annual training to officers, managers, supervisors and employees on sexual harassment.

Lessons learned ... without going to court

This case offers several lessons for HR professionals, including:

  • Train. Look, either you train your work force to prevent harassment, discrimination and retaliation or you’ll be forced to by the courts … with a big splash of publicity. If money is the issue, this case proves that it’s at least $1 million cheaper to train proactively.
  • Train everyone. That means officers, execs, managers, supervisors, employees, sales force, part-timers ... you get the picture. It’s hard to believe that some organizations still don’t train their nonsupervisory employees, fearing that knowledge will create a lawsuit.
  • Train on your policy. Focus training on your specific policy, including your reporting procedures and how to report retaliation.
  • Check your reporting procedures. Are they updated? Make sure they don’t list people or positions that are no longer with your organization.
  • Notice means awareness. When your supervisors and executives are aware of conduct inconsistent with your harassment policy, they must take immediate and effective action to investigate.
  • Enforce consequences. Write up violators. Discipline them. Fire them. This case shows what they can do to your business and your brand.

________________________________

Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial. 

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