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by Mindy Chapman, Esq.

You probably heard about last month’s big $11.6 million sexual harassment verdict against former basketball star and New York Knicks coach Isiah Thomas.

The bad news: Your employees heard about it, too … and it planted a seed in their minds. Will they see your organization’s pockets as the path to a similar windfall?

This ruling brought the greatest publicity to a sexual harassment case since the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill fiasco of 1991. And the plaintiff, Knicks marketing executive Anucha Browne Sanders, was all over TV after the verdict saying, “This really is a wake-up call to those in a professional working environment … being silent never makes change, so speak up!”

Look around: Do your employees have reason to “speak up”? This case may give them that push they need.

Case in point: Browne Sanders accused Thomas of subjecting her to hostile conduct, including swearing and calling her a “bitch” and a “ho.” He repeatedly professed his love for her and solicited sex. When she ignored his advances, she said Thomas spread vulgar rumors about her.

Browne Sanders complained to management, but it failed to act. The company eventually did investigate but determined the conduct didn’t happen. Instead, it fired her, citing performance reasons.

She sued under federal and state laws, citing a sexually hostile work environment and retaliation for her complaint. A jury sided with Browne Sanders and returned a punitive damages award worth $11.6 million. (Browne Sanders v. Madison Square Garden LP, SD NY, 10/2/07)

3 lessons learned

This case taught three “Nevers” that all employers can learn from:

1. Never end a harassment investigation report with the conclusion to fire the victim. That’s what happened in this case. Nothing stinks of retaliation more than that.

2. Never make a firing decision in a vacuum. The company chairman, James Dolan, said the firing was his decision alone. He neither consulted with legal counsel nor did he review her personnel file, which would have revealed consistent positive performance evaluations.

3. Never ignore a complaint of harassment, discrimination or retaliation. Juries hate to learn that complaints fell on deaf ears. There’s only one response to a complaint: prompt, effective action to correct the behavior and stop it.

Bottom line: You may not think employees are keeping score, but they are. In this case, the scoreboard reads: Employee: $11.6 million vs. Employer: minus $11.6 million. Play at work fairly and this won’t happen to you!

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Mindy Chapman is an attorney and president of Mindy Chapman & Associates LLC. She is a master trainer, keynote speaker and co-author of the ABA book, Case Dismissed! Taking Your Harassment Prevention Training to Trial.

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