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Set harassment policies employees can understand and follow

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Human Resources

The best—quite possibly the only—protection employers have against losing a sexual harassment lawsuit is an effective sexual harassment policy.

A good policy does two things: (1) It helps prevent harassment in the first place and (2) it allows the organization to stop harassment before it escalates. But a policy isn’t worth the paper it’s written on if employees don’t know about it or find it hard to use.

Recent case: Samekiea Merriweather was just 16 years old when she went to work at a Burger King restaurant. She was one of a crew made up mostly of teens.

Almost immediately, her 35-year-old manager began making suggestive comments to Merriweather. He also rubbed up against her, tried to kiss her and told her he preferred young girls because their bodies weren’t “all used up.” He even suggested they go to a hotel room, where he would pay her $600.

Merriweather rebuffed his advances and was fired. Then the manager rehired her. Meanwhile, she complained to the shift supervisors and to an assistant manager. She even asked the assistant manager for a phone number to report the harassment, but he told her he didn’t know whether such a number existed or whether he could give it to her. When he finally gave her a phone number, it turned out to be the wrong number. Then she tried to call the hotline number she saw on her paystub, only to find out it was for comments about the company, not sexual harassment complaints.

Finally, Merriweather’s mother went to the restaurant, demanding action from the assistant manager. Instead, Merriweather was fired. The EEOC took up her case and sued. The agency used the restaurant’s employment handbook to show the court that even a sophisticated adult employee would have had trouble figuring out whom to call with a harassment complaint.

The handbook said complaints should go to the “district manager,” but didn’t explain how. There is a phone number on the handbook cover, but calling it reaches a receptionist at corporate headquarters. Finally, the handbook says employees should complain to their supervisor, who is supposed to “turn himself in.”

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals concluded that Burger King’s complaint process was seriously flawed. It said a process that won’t let employees bypass their supervisors is unreasonable and no better than having no process at all. Companies must tailor the complaint process to their employees so that it is a “reasonable mechanism” for lodging complaints. (EEOC v. V&J Foods, No. 07-1009, 7th Cir., 2007)

Final note: Is your complaint process simple and easy to use? Does it allow employees to bypass supervisors, who may be the ones doing the harassing? Would the average employee know how to complain? Whom to call? Is the policy written in plain English, or in the predominant language employees speak? Has every manager and supervisor been trained where to direct employees who have complaints?

Your policy should include explicit statements that:

  • Provide assurances that there will be no retaliation against an employee who reports sexual harassment
  • The organization will promptly and thoroughly investigate all reports of sexual harassment, and promptly take remedial action should it become clear that sexual harassment has occurred.

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