Warn top brass: Avoid appearance of impropriety

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

CEOs and other high-ranking company officials should do all they can to avoid even the appearance of impropriety at work, on business trips and when socializing with employees. Reason: Even innocent behavior can be made to look like harassment.

Recent case: Tia went to work for Cannon Industries, a family-owned manufacturer in Rochester. She started off as a part-time customer service representative and slowly rose to become the CEO’s senior administrative assistant.

When the CEO began criticizing her performance, she went to HR and complained that she was being sexually harassed. Shortly after, she was transferred back to customer service, with no loss in pay or benefits.

That’s when she sued, alleging she had been forced to work in a sexually hostile environment.

She claimed the CEO once asked her—while discussing business over drinks at a bar—if she wanted to have sex with him. Tia added that once, while on a business trip, she had to charge her phone in the CEO’s hotel room and that he again propositioned her when she came to retrieve it. Tia also said the CEO sometimes touched her backside and tried to kiss her while they were at work.

The CEO denied all the allegations, but did admit that they had drinks in the bar and that she entered his hotel room to charge her phone. Those incidents bolstered her otherwise weak case and persuaded the court to let Tia’s case go to trial. (Howard v. Cannon Industries, No. 11-CV-6100, WD NY, 2012)

Final note: The office incidents in this case represent classic he said/she said disputes. However, the admitted bar and hotel room meetings make the CEO look bad—and may harm his credibility before a jury.

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