Under Title VII’s sexual harassment provisions, employers have few defenses if supervisors harass subordinates to the point that there’s a hostile work environment. But if the employer has an effective and well-designed complaint process that promises relief, it can reduce its liability—usually even if the harassed employee doesn’t take advantage of that process.
How long can an employee tolerate the harassment before he or she must complain? The answer depends on the situation—but a short delay won’t harm the employee’s case.
Recent case: Eileen Craig sued her employer, alleging that her immediate supervisor had sexually harassed her by continually asking her to have sexual relations. On one occasion, the supervisor followed her into a restroom and kissed her.
Craig, who knew the company had a sexual harassment policy and complaint process, didn’t immediately complain—although she did rebuff the supervisor’s advances. When he wouldn’t stop and started calling her at home, she finally complained. It was 19 days after the restroom incident.
The company investigated and punished the supervisor. When Craig sued anyway, the company argued that she had unreasonably delayed complaining, thus allowing the conduct to continue or even worsen.
The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said Craig’s delay was reasonable under the circumstances and sent the case back for trial. (Craig v. M&O Agencies, et al., No. 05-16427, 9th Cir., 2007)