Employers that don’t have a squeaky-clean, sex- and innuendo-free workplace may end up spending big bucks defending against sexual harassment charges.
Courts hesitate to dismiss hostile work environment cases without letting a jury weigh in. That means you need an aggressive program that bans all forms of sexual behavior and banter at work.
Recent case: Marlis O’Leary worked as a corrections officer. Most of her fellow officers were men. O’Leary claimed that over a little more than a year, she had to endure a sexually hostile work environment.
She sued, alleging that she was regularly asked out, commented on, prodded and otherwise treated as a sexual object at work. Plus, she said her male co-workers’ computer screensavers featured naked women, and that they regularly watched pornography and played a sexually oriented game on their computers.
Her employer investigated, interviewed scores of employees and concluded that her allegations were unfounded. It asked the court to toss out her lawsuit.
The court refused—even though it clearly didn’t believe much of what O’Leary recounted, since she had close personal friendships with several of her alleged harassers. (O’Leary v. Kaupas, et al., No. 08-C-7246, ND IL, 2011)
Advice: To minimize your harassment liability:
- Educate managers and supervisors at every level about maintaining a professional, nonsexualized workplace at all times. Make sure computers don’t have unauthorized screensavers. Set up Internet filters so employees can’t download or access pornography. The same goes for company-issued electronic devices like cellphones and tablets.
- Conduct snap inspections. They’re an especially good idea in workplace locations far from the main office. That’s where you often will find risqué posters and calendars decorating cubicles, garages and the like. Those must go.
- Probe all complaints; even positive review can trigger retaliation claim
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