Sexual harassment runs the gamut, from out-and-out assault to unwelcome flirting. No sane employer would hesitate to fire someone who physically harmed a co-worker.
But for less severe, isolated incidents, less drastic action may be reasonable—as long as it solves the problem.
Recent case: Lisa Lewandowski worked as an assistant to a college dean. The school had a policy that prohibited sexual harassment and protected employees from retaliation for reporting harassment.
Lewandowski claimed that her boss propositioned her, described his sexual fantasies and said he wanted her to bear his children. She complained to the HR director, who advised telling the dean she wasn’t interested in his advances.
Lewandowski apparently then went to dinner with the dean, shared a cab and let him into her apartment, all to explain that she didn’t welcome his advances.
The HR director interviewed everyone involved. The dean said he thought interest in a relationship was mutual, since Lewandowski had once hugged him and kissed him on the cheek. He was reprimanded and warned against any other inappropriate interaction with Lewandowski. The college offered Lewandowski a transfer to another equivalent position.
But later, Lewandowski was terminated for, and she sued.
Among her allegations was the claim that the college didn’t act strongly enough when confronted with allegations that a supervisor solicited a sexual relationship with a subordinate.
The court didn’t see it that way. It said an employer doesn’t have to terminate an alleged harasser. It just must fix the problem right away. A jury will determine if the reprimand was enough, and also whether Lewandowski’s actions indicated she welcomed the advances. (Lewandowski v. Columbia College Chicago, No. 09-C-4949, ND IL, 2012)
- Beware Sec. 1981 lawsuits, which target race bias
- Inappropriate nicknames can lead to bias lawsuits
- Feel free to let the punishment fit the 'crime' when disciplining for off-duty conduct
- Stay ahead of EEOC complaint calendar by documenting when employee learns he'll lose job
- Avoid needless reference to culture differences