Here’s some good news for HR managers handling sexual harassment complaints. As long as you act fast, investigate and use your best efforts to prevent a repeat performance, one sexually explicit comment isn’t grounds for a lawsuit.
Recent case: Martha worked in a largely male workplace as a shipping clerk. When she picked up a phone used by co-workers and retrieved messages, she saw a sexually explicit, crude text message. She complained and HR investigated by trying to identify who sent the text message and interviewing him.
Ultimately, it couldn’t verify that the suspect had indeed sent the text. But Martha didn’t see any more messages or otherwise endure any sexually explicit or suggestive comments, texts or messages.
Still, when she sued over other workplace complaints, she added sexual harassment to the legal claims. She alleged she had been highly offended by the text message.
The court threw out her claim. First, it concluded that one comment not directed at Martha and not targeting her wasn’t enough on its own to create a hostile work environment. Second, the employer investigated. Finally, Martha never got any other messages after the investigation, showing that the employer had fixed the problem before it escalated. Her claim was dismissed. (Anglin v. Ceres, et al., No. H-10-2082, SD TX, 2013)
Final note: Prompt action is essential when sexual harassment complaints surface. If you can’t determine who did the harassing, consider providing a refresher course on sexual harassment and the kind of professional behavior you expect from all employees. Then explain the complaint process and invite any employee to come forward. Follow up with the original complaining employee to make sure there is no further harassment. Document everything carefully.
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