One of the only legally secure ways to protect your company from hostile work environment lawsuits is to provide clear steps for employees to complain. Then investigate the allegations.
Make sure employees know how to raise concerns and whom to talk to. Include that information in new-hire orientation and the employee handbook. Prove that employees received the information by having them sign 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 do all this, employees won’t be able to claim they didn’t report harassment because they didn’t know how.
Recent case: FedEx has an anti-harassment policy that invites employees to complain to their supervisor, to HR or through a telephone hotline if they believe they are being harassed or experiencing discrimination.
Nathaniel, a FedEx driver in Ohio, sued the company after what he claimed was months of racial harassment. Nathaniel identifies himself as black.
He said he was constantly referred to as “Mexican” and told, “Arriba!” Also, a co-worker scrawled graffiti saying Mexicans were “proof that American Indians had sex with buffalos.”
FedEx argued that it wasn’t responsible for the harassment because Nathaniel, 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.
The court sided with FedEx. It noted that the company, when it got word of the comments, investigated and then retrained everyone on what’s acceptable behavior in the workplace. That was good enough for the court. (Burrage v. FedEx Freight, No. 4:10-CV-2755, ND OH, 2012)
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