You can’t prevent all sexual harassment, but you can do plenty to avoid liability when it does happen, at least when the harasser is a co-worker.
Start with a clear anti-harassment policy, and make sure everyone understands it. Include specific, easy-to-follow directions for reporting alleged harassment.
Then make sure someone follows up immediately and punishes any co-worker who harasses another in a way that makes future harassment unlikely. Sometimes, that may require termination. In other instances, a warning or short suspension may get the message across.
Recent case: AnnMarie worked for an Italian family restaurant. She claimed that another employee who was slightly higher in the company hierarchy attacked her while the two were working in a freezer. They had been directed to work there by another employee who ranked higher than both of them.
The restaurant had a policy that told employees they should immediately report sexual harassment to either their supervisor, HR or the restaurant’s owner.
AnnMarie reported the freezer incident and another alleged instance of harassment to HR, which launched an immediate investigation. The employee involved in the freezer incident was fired. The other employee got off with a stern warning and apparently never bothered AnnMarie again.
She sued anyway, alleging strict liability over the freezer incident. She claimed that the co-worker was really her supervisor and therefore his harassment could not be defended even though he was fired. The restaurant asked the court to consider him a co-worker rather than a supervisor, since he didn’t have the power to hire or fire and generally didn’t supervise anyone.
The court agreed he should be classified as a mere co-worker.
The court then considered the restaurant’s anti-harassment policy, reporting mechanism, investigation and actions. It concluded that AnnMarie had no case. Because the restaurant fired the harasser soon after investigating the incident, it had effectively prevented any further harassment. Plus, by disciplining the other employee, it also apparently persuaded him to leave AnnMarie alone, since she acknowledged that there had been no further harassment. The court tossed out her case. (Scoppettone v. Mama Lonbardi’s Pizzico, No. 11-4977, 2nd Cir., 2013)
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