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Court: Tailor complaint procedure to ‘Average’ worker

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When was the last time you read your company’s harassment reporting procedures? Could all employees in your organization understand how—and with whom—to file a complaint?

It’s important to ask these questions in the wake of a new court ruling that should give you incentive to cut the legalese and confusion out of your reporting procedures.

Your organization typically can avoid liability in a harassment suit if it can show that the alleged victim bypassed your company’s “reasonable” complaint-filing procedure. But if that procedure is confusing, a court may green-light the lawsuit anyway.

Recent case: A 16-year-old worker at a Milwaukee Burger King rejected her boss’s sexual advances. She complained to a shift manager, who did nothing. Finally, her mother went to the restaurant to complain to the manager on duty. Her boss found out and fired her. She sued for sexual harassment.

Burger King argued that it shouldn’t be liable because the employee didn’t follow the restaurant’s harassment reporting procedure. (The handbook told employees to report harassment to the district manager, but it never gave those managers’ names or phone numbers.)

Result: The court sided with the employee, saying she could pursue her case because Burger King’s complaint procedures were likely to confuse even adult employees.

Here’s what the court said: “An employer is not required to tailor its complaint procedures to the competence of each individual employee. But, if it is part of the business plan to employ teenagers … the company was obligated to suit its procedures to the understanding of the average teenager.” (EEOC v. V&J Foods Inc., 7th Cir., 2007)

Can employee’s parent put you on notice of sexual harassment?

Burger King also argued that this employee shouldn’t be able to pursue a harassment lawsuit because her mother had no standing to put the company on notice of harassment. But the court rejected this argument, too.

It said the employee’s mother acted as her “agent” in notifying the company of the harassment, similar to the way a lawyer does.

The lesson: In today’s legal world, it’s no longer just employees who can voice harassment complaints, but now it can be their parents, maybe even grandparents, cousins or babysitters. Don’t focus on who makes the complaint. Just listen to what they have to say. Then take prompt, effective action to stop the harassment.

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