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Combat co-worker harassment with effective policy, prompt action

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

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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