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Anti-harassment policy, training are meaningless if supervisors decide to ignore them

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

­Employers have an obligation to provide a work environment free of sexual harassment. When the supervisor does the harassing, liability is pretty clear.

But when a co-worker makes himself a nuisance (or worse), employers do have a defense. A robust anti-harassment policy, a clear reporting method and swift and sure action will cut liability in almost all cases.

But what if the policy isn’t en­­forced or a supervisor learns about the harassment but ignores the problem and doesn’t take action? Then all bets are off.

Recent case: Sheila started working for New York City as a caseworker and climbed the career ladder to become a supervisor. When a new employee was assigned to her, it was clear from the beginning that the two would be at odds. The man almost immediately told Sheila that he wouldn’t take direction from a woman.

Plus, there were rumors that the new employee had been reinstated after having previously been discharged for “bothering a female.” Sheila complained about the new subordinate to her boss, who allegedly told her to just keep track of his time and otherwise leave him alone.

It quickly became apparent that the man was more than a mere sexist. He spent considerable time staring at several female employees in the office. Even more disturbing, he sometimes held a blanket over his lap while “doing something with his hands.” Then he would excuse himself to go to the bathroom, where co-workers said they could hear him groaning. They surmised he was masturbating.

Sheila reported all this to her supervisor many times.

The last straw came when the man grabbed several women and walked into a cubicle, where he dropped his pants and proceeded to masturbate in full view of co-workers. Several women observed him do so. Only then was he removed from the ­premises.

Sheila sued, alleging she had been forced to work in a sexually hostile work environment, and that the city had done nothing about it despite her frequent complaints.

The city countered that it had a sexual har­­ass­­ment policy, encouraged employees to complain and required all managers to report any sexual harassment up the chain of ­command.

That wasn’t good enough for the court, which ordered a trial. It said policies don’t protect employers from liability if the policies aren’t enforced. In this case, it was clear that Sheila’s supervisor had ignored his obligation, so the city’s policy was meaningless. (Brown v. City of New York, et al., No. 11-CIV-2915, SD NY, 2013)

Final note: Harassers almost never stop unless someone makes them. And their behavior sometimes escalates from comments to touching to serious sexual assault. Don’t let that happen at your workplace.

What could the city have done in this case? It should have provided training encouraging all employees to bypass their immediate supervisor if they thought their initial complaint was going nowhere.

Finally, if the man had indeed been previously disciplined for harassing a woman in another office, he should have been carefully supervised in his new setting.

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