When HR receives a complaint about sexual or some other form of harassment, immediately put your investigation machinery in motion. Start gathering information before you even meet with the complaining employee.
That way, you can’t be accused of ignoring the problem, and you’ll have a better chance of getting any lawsuit dismissed quickly.
Recent case: When Sam was a freshman at Southern Illinois University, he got a campus job in the chemistry stockroom. That room was located across the hall from an elderly, retired professor’s office.
The professor, a respected chemistry instructor before retiring, had donated millions of dollars to the university. As professor emeritus, he had full campus and office privileges.
Sam got upset when the professor commented that he had beautiful hair, giggled and squeezed Sam’s buttocks. A few days later, the prof again commented on Sam’s hair. That’s when Sam and his mother went to the administration and complained. Immediately, an investigation began.
HR then met with Sam and his mom to discuss the matter. They were asked if there were any witnesses and were told that the professor was “an old man with a compromised mental state” who had been much admired in his day and who had contributed heavily. They took this as an effort to get them to drop their complaint.
Meanwhile, the investigation had uncovered another incident in which a female employee complained she had also been touched. The professor was ordered off campus and had to be escorted out several times over the next few months.
Meanwhile, Sam sued, alleging sexual harassment and a hostile environment. (The professor also sued, but his case was quickly dismissed.)
The court tossed out Sam’s case. It reasoned that, despite the university’s apparent reluctance to act on just Sam’s word—and what Sam and his mother could have perceived as the university’s reluctance to act—the university had in fact acted. The investigation was already under way when the initial meeting with Sam and his mom took place. Plus, once the investigation showed prior objectionable conduct, the university removed the professor from campus despite his donations and stature. (Milligan v. Board of Trustees of Southern Illinois University, No. 10-3862, 7th Cir., 2012)
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