Chances are, you have a sexual harassment policy that gives employees several ways to report harassment—maybe including a hotline for phoning in problems. If that’s the case, you are well on your way to fighting sexual harassment complaints that seemingly come out of nowhere.
But beware: An employee may file an EEOC complaint before you even have a chance to investigate alleged harassment. If that happens, your hotline records may play a crucial role in your defense.
Recent case: Jennifer Crawford and several other midlevel BNSF Railway managers complained to the EEOC that their supervisor was sexually and racially harassing them. They claimed that although they knew they could call a company hotline to report sexual harassment, they did not. Their reason? They said they had heard that HR ignored hotline calls.
Out came the railroad’s hotline records, which showed that employees did use it. Plus, each time a complaint came in, the company fully investigated. Although none of the calls and follow-up investigations has ever uncovered genuine harassment, the railroad still insisted everyone involved take a refresher course on the company’s harassment policy.
Plus, it fired the supervisor after receiving the EEOC complaint and investigating the allegations.
The court tossed out the case. It reasoned that the railroad showed the hotline worked as designed, and the employees had no excuse for not using it (or other methods company policy allowed for reporting harassment). (Crawford, et al., v. BNSF Railway Company, No. 11-1953, 8th Cir., 2012)
Final note: Remember, if employees unreasonably ignore your well-publicized policy for reporting sexual harassment, you won’t be liable for harassment. That’s true for all kinds of sexual harassment except supervisor harassment accompanied by an adverse employment action such as discharge or demotion.
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