One of the only ways to protect your company from hostile work environment lawsuits is to provide a way for employees to complain. Then investigate the allegations.
Make sure employees know how to raise concerns and who to talk to. Include that information in new-hire orientation and the employee handbook. Have employees show they received the information by signing a written acknowledgment. Then create a regular reminder system, such as including the information at review time or printing reminders in the employee newsletter.
If you follow these suggestions, an employee won’t be able to claim he didn’t report harassment because he didn’t know how to.
Recent case: Nathaniel Burrage, who identifies himself as black, worked as a FedEx driver. FedEx has an anti-harassment policy that invites employees to complain to their supervisor, HR or through a telephone hotline if they believe they are being harassed or experiencing discrimination.
Burrage sued the delivery company after what he claimed was months of racial harassment.
He said he was constantly referred to as “Mexican” and told, “Andale!” and “Arriba!” In addition, some co-workers scrawled graffiti stating Mexicans were “proof that American Indians had sex with buffalos.”
FedEx said it wasn’t responsible for the harassment because Burrage, who admitted he knew how to complain, hadn’t done so until the alleged harassment had gone on for some time. And even when he did complain, he wasn’t specific about the allegations.
FedEx said it investigated and then retrained everyone, including supervisors, on what’s acceptable behavior in the workplace. That was good enough for the court, which dismissed the case. (Burrage v. FedEx Freight, No. 4:10-CV-2755, ND OH, 2012)
Final note: The court also concluded Burrage didn’t have a case since he is not Mexican.