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Chase case shows exactly which arguments won’t help defend sexual harassment lawsuit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Sometimes, seeing how another employer handles an HR problem can give you confidence you’re on the right track. That’s especially true if that other employer messes up really, really badly.

Recent case: When Michele Powers and several other women who had worked for Chase Bankcard Services sued over alleged sexual harassment, the company trotted out several unique defenses to the charges.

But first, let’s take a look at the details of daily life for Powers and the other women who worked in the bank’s credit card “vault,” a highly secure facility that warehouses blank credit cards. It’s where Chase embosses those blanks into real credit cards, with customers’ names and account numbers. The women worked as support clerks in the vault.

Each woman described an atmos­­­­­­­­phere that was at best unpleasant—and which they reported to their supervisors regularly over a three-year period. Several male co-workers regularly called the women “bitch” and worse. One man allegedly kept up a constant barrage of abuse, stating that women are only good for “beating and f***ing.” Statements like “f*** you, bitch” and “get the f*** over here” were apparently ­routine.

When one of the women transferred to another position, she spilled her guts during her exit interview. She told an HR rep about the atmos­­­phere and said there was a serious lack of respect for women in the facility. She followed up later to see if anything had been done, but learned that nothing had changed.

If anything, things got worse for the women left behind, according to their lawsuit. Name-calling progressed to grabbing and kissing. Men entered the women’s bathroom and urinated on the seats. They pestered a new mother expressing breast milk, making mooing noises. Other women heard themselves referred to as “sweaty slut” or “fat a**.”

When one of the remaining women got angry at the name-calling, she screamed at the male co-worker and then was heard having a telephone conversation with her husband in which she allegedly asked him to “hurt” her tormentor. She was promptly fired.

That woman went to the EEOC and launched the lawsuit. It was only then that HR decided to conduct an investigation into the atmosphere in the vault.

Chase tried to defend itself by claiming it promptly investigated the EEOC complaint. It argued that the women couldn’t have suffered much since their performance was never affected and since the remaining women never asked for a transfer or quit.

Plus, it argued that the women had from time to time discussed things like their menstrual cycles and expressing breast milk and may even have used a curse word while addressing their male co-workers.

The judge was not amused. He said that Chase’s investigation was neither prompt nor effective. He observed that discussing menstruation or breastfeeding was not the same as the harassment the women described and didn’t mean they welcomed the harassment.

And he noted that employees don’t need to quit or request transfers to show that they feel subjectively harassed. He ordered a jury trial. (Powers, et al., v. Chase Bankcard Services, No. 2:10-CV-332, SD OH, 2012)

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