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How to prevent hostile environment claims

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Employers confronted with sexual harassment claims generally do one of two things: either ignore the problem and hope it goes away or face it head on. Ignoring it is, of course, the wrong decision.

Bold action is required. Fix the problem immediately. Then follow up with policies and action to prevent the problem from surfacing again.

Recent case: Maria worked as a corrections guard at California State Prison in Solano. She sued after being exposed to what she termed sexually offensive materials belonging to inmates.

The state explained to the court that it took great pains to control inmate access to pornography and other sexually offensive materials. For example, inmates who had such materials could lose privileges and even be denied parole.

However, it did allow inmates to possess sexually suggestive (but not offensive) materials like lingerie catalogs, but even those could not be openly displayed. That meant no pinup calendars or posters on cell walls, for example. Plus, guards were empowered to warn prisoners to put away suggestive materials.

Maria did twice tell a prisoner to put away suggestive pictures. She was, however, never exposed to pornographic images and also admitted that when she told prisoners to put away things she considered too risqué, they always did.

The court tossed out her claim. It concluded that because the prison effectively controlled access to explicit images and required prisoners to keep other materials out of sight, it did all that was expected of it to prevent a sexually hostile work environment from taking root. (Daniels, et al., v. California Depart­­ment of Corrections, No. 2:10-CV-00003, ED CA, 2013)

Final note: You don’t have to be in a prison environment to face explicit sexual materials. Ban open display of even suggestive materials like pinup posters and screensavers.

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