The most direct route to a hostile-work-environment lawsuit is to ignore complaints. Do nothing and your liability builds with each new complaint. Plaintiffs can even use incidents that happened years earlier to prove you ignored a growing problem.
Create a “quick response” team to immediately handle complaints and then follow up. Here’s how to respond:
- Log the complaint, the source and the details. Ask the employee to write out the complaint, but don’t require it.
- Tell the employee how you will handle the complaint, so he or she is not in the dark. Set reasonable time limits for your investigation and make sure you meet them.
- Speak with everyone involved and get their version of events.
- After concluding the investigation, decide whether there was harassment or a hostile-work environment. Then take concrete steps to correct the problem.
Don’t brush complaints aside as the employer did in the following case, with predictable results.
Recent case: Carol Isaacs worked for Hill’s Pet Nutrition for more than five years. Early on, she began complain-ing that male co-workers made sexual comments to her and other female employees. And she claimed a team leader even repeatedly displayed pornography on a computer screen in her presence.
Whenever she complained to, they told her to ignore the harassment. Conditions didn’t improve, so she sued. Hill’s claimed Isaacs filed too late, and that anything that happened earlier than 300 days ago was irrelevant.
Not so, concluded the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals. When the claim is a hostile-work environment, the court will consider all related incidents as long as the employee files her complaint within 300 days of any incident. The court wrote that doing nothing after receiving multiple complaints about serious conditions is “a straight road to liability.” The court ordered a jury trial. (Isaacs v. Hill’s Pet Nutrition, No. 06-2201, 7th Cir., 2007)
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