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Don’t be afraid to face down a harassing CEO

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,Human Resources

It's easy to tell a mail clerk to knock off his harassing comments, but try telling the same thing to your CEO or other top dog. The truth is, though, that it's even more important to stop a raging CEO in his or her tracks than a lower-level employee. Courts will see your CEO as the mouthpiece of the organization and may hold him or her to a higher standard. If you know what's going on and fail to stop it, you're opening the organization, and possibly yourself, to liability.

Instead of pointing a confrontational finger at the CEO's behavior, approach your concern a different way. Discuss the CEO's actions in light of protecting the organization from an expensive lawsuit. Another option that's even better for your job security: Enlist the help of your outside counsel and have him or her do the talking. After all, it's your attorney's job to advise your organization of preventable risks.

While standing up to the boss isn't easy, you can find some comfort in this fact: Anti-retaliation laws protect your comments to the boss.

Recent case: A CEO called purchasing agent Jody Lee a "bitch" more than two dozen times. He frequently criticized her performance and compared her work to that of male employees. And he made derogatory comments about women in general.

A restructuring resulted in Lee and two male employees being laid off. The two males were offered severance pay without having to sign a lawsuit waiver. But Lee was told she wouldn't receive severance unless she signed the re-lease. She refused and filed suit for sex discrimination.

The company admitted the CEO's sexist comments, but said no evidence connected those comments to the firing decision.

A district court sided with Lee. Although it agreed that the anti-female remarks were hard to link directly to the termination decision, the court said "these remarks and attitudes ... show that he had little respect for women in the workplace." And that anti-female attitude was enough for the sex bias suit to go forward, the court said. (Lee v. Curt Manufacturing Inc., No. 03-C-523-C, W.D. Wisconsin, 2004)

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