No department is immune from sexual harassment—not even HR. And when someone in HR is implicated, that’s a big problem.
Why? What if your sexual harassment policy requires employees to register complaints with HR? If you don’t offer an alternative, then you may not be able to defend against a harassment claim alleging there was no effective way to report it.
Recent case: Lee worked in HR at Safelite Glass until she was terminated shortly after telling an executive that her immediate supervisor was sexually harassing her.
Lee handled day-to-day HR functions at the Safelite plant in Enfield. She had been trained on the company’s sexual harassment policies, which required supervisors to report suspected harassment up the chain of command. The policy also informed employees they could call a toll-free hotline to report any harassment, bypassing their supervisors.
Because Safelite has operations in all 50 states, the rest of the HR staff was dispersed. Lee’s immediate supervisor, however, was often present at the Enfield plant. She would later claim that he began to harass her with compliments, moved on to vulgar comments and culminated with groping and other physical attempts to engage in sex.
Lee said the man’s suggestive comments included, “You look damn good.” She said he constantly stared at her chest. She also said he had grabbed her, run his hands along her waist, tried to kiss her and once tried to lure her into bed at a hotel where they were meeting, among numerous other incidents.
Lee eventually complained to an executive about one incident in which her boss asked about the color of her panties. The executive said he would “take care of it.” Instead, Lee soon found herself terminated for alleged.
That’s when she reported all the allegations. Safelite conducted an internal investigation, but didn’t speak to everyone Lee identified as possible witnesses. The company eventually closed the investigation, concluding there wasn’t enough evidence to show sexual harassment.
The EEOC sued on Lee’s behalf.
Safelite argued that Lee never took advantage of any of the company’s sexual harassment reporting methods, such as the toll-free phone hotline. Lee explained that she knew everyone in HR could listen to those complaints, including the harassing supervisor.
The court said the case should go to trial for claims involving both sexual harassment and retaliation for reporting harassment. (EEOC v. Safelite, No. 4:10-CV-102, ED NC, 2012)
Final note: There’s a simple solution to reporting sexual harassment within the HR department: Make arrangements with a neutral third party to handle sexual harassment complaints coming from within HR and other high-level offices such as company headquarters.
Advice: Consider outsourcing the investigation process for all harassment claims. It’s the best way to get a truly neutral and unbiased report.
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