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Training, strong policies key to keeping workplace harassment-free

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

No doubt your company has a sexual harassment policy in place. However, it may have been drafted long ago and may have been long ignored by supervisors and subordinates alike. If you suspect this is the case, it’s time to dust off the document, review it and start making sure all your supervisors and managers take it seriously.

Critically important is that everyone designated to receive harassment complaints knows what to do. Super­­visors should have a clear time requirement for reporting complaints to HR. They should understand that they can’t handle the problem themselves. If you use a hotline, make sure you designate someone to check messages daily. Monitor email and make sure none are going into a “junk” folder.

Recent case: Robin worked for a furniture manufacturer, starting as a cabinet sander and progressing to working on leaded glass doors. After six years, she was laid off in a downsizing. That’s when she filed suit, alleging she had endured years of sexual harassment at work.

She recounted that supervisors participated in a “sexual question of the day” game and that she once received as a gift a pair of jeans cut like thong underwear. She claimed someone brought in a cake shaped like a penis. She said her supervisor once issued a mock disciplinary notice in which he cited her large breasts as a hazard around woodworking machinery. She told the court that men frequently mooned co-workers. And she claimed sexually explicit emails circulated through the company computer system, including some that allegedly originated from a supervisor’s email account.

The furniture company countered that it had a strong anti-harassment policy in place and that Robin should have used it. But Robin said she did tell one supervisor about some of the incidents, to no avail and that she feared losing her job.

The court said the case could continue even though some of the alleged harassment had taken place outside the statute of limitations. It reasoned that those incidents were merely part of a long pattern of alleged sexual harassment. Sex­­ual harassment that continues over years with no halt is, the court said, a continuing vio­­lation not sub­ject to the statute of limitation.

Plus, it said a jury should decide if the company could use their sexual harassment policy as a defense. The court was especially critical of the apparent lack of training on sexual harassment for both supervisors and subordinates and expressed doubt about the policy’s effectiveness without that training.  (Randler v. Kountry Kraft Kitchens, No. 1:11-CV-0474, MD PA, 2012)

Final note: Don’t assume everything is fine just because no one has called the hotline or emailed a complaint. Be proactive. Make surprise visits to the production floor. Stop in the locker room, bathrooms and break room to look for telltale signs of trouble such as jokes posted on bulletin boards or graffiti on walls. If you find any, immediately remove the offensive materials and call an emergency management meeting. Review the company harassment policy. Do the same with rank-and-file employees and remind them how to report sexual (and any other types of) harassment.

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