By now you’ve heard of this week's scandal involving a former Penn State football coach and the university’s decade-long cover-up of his alleged molestation of young boys. Penn State officials learned about the coach’s alleged abuse of a 10-year-old boy in the team’s locker room, yet decided to deal with the issue internally, not contact the police.
The state’s attorney general criticized school leaders, citing “the lack of action and apparent lack of concern among officials … who either avoided asking difficult questions or chose to look the other way.”
The scandal this week led to the firing of legendary head coach Joe Paterno, the dismissal of the university's president and the likely exits of many more university leaders.
One HR lesson is obvious: Employers can never ignore reports of misconduct or harassment by employees against anyone—co-workers, clients or anyone on the premises.
"It is not a defense for you to bury your organizational head in the sand and hope that it will all be gone when you emerge into the sunlight,” says attorney Jon Hyman, a partner with Kohrman Jackson & Krantz in Cleveland and the editor of the HR Specialist's Ohio Employment Law newsletter.
But at what point does harassment cross the line into something more serious (like assault) that requires an employer to call to the police? When should you—or must you—make that call?
“’Should’ is a broader answer than ‘must,’” says Hyman. “When children are involved, as in the Penn State story, moral obligations far outweigh legal obligations. Employees should put themselves in the shoes of victim’s family.”
Hyman added, “The answer to when HR ‘must’ blow the whistle will be guided by state law and, in some specific instances like financial irregularities, by federal law.”