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When harassment suit looms, prompt action saves the day

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Preventing Workplace Violence

Open a New York newspaper and chances are you’ll see a headline featuring an employer in deep trouble for allegedly allowing an atmosphere of sexual or racial harassment to flourish. Whether at Madison Square Garden or a publisher’s office, it seems as if female executives are being harassed in increasingly vulgar and demeaning ways.

Sometimes these women sue for sexual harassment—and win big. That may explain why more and more employers are noting increased calls to their employee harassment hotlines or HR offices. After all, before suing for sexual or racial harassment, an employee usually must make reasonable use of any complaint mechanism her employer has in place.

When you receive such a complaint, act immediately. Don’t wait. Often, that’s exactly what the employee’s attorney is hoping. Instead, investigate and reach a conclusion.

That investigation must be meaningful. You simply can’t call a supervisor (especially if he or she is the alleged harasser), get a denial and then close the case. You have to make absolutely certain your investigation is complete and impartial.

Don’t forget to call your attorney to go over the evidence you uncovered, plus your conclusions. He or she may be able to help you arrive at a sound decision that will show a court that you handled the matter in a professional and serious manner.

Recent case: Dolores Williams, who is black, worked for Con Ed in a largely male environment. She often heard supervisors and co-workers refer to women as “bitches” who menstruated and should be avoided when they did. Other times, the men allegedly used extremely vulgar words for sex organs when talking about women. Plus, co-workers and supervisors regularly bantered about the “n” word.

Williams complained twice to upper-level supervisors and the HR office. Each time, Con Ed representatives conducted perfunctory investigations, consisting of talking to supervisors and a few co-workers. When some of these co-workers verified the name-calling, they were ignored and not mentioned in the final memos closing the complaints.

Meanwhile, Williams couldn’t take it anymore. She threatened to “go postal” and was fired for violating the company’s zero-tolerance workplace violence rule.

She sued, alleging retaliatory discharge and that she had endured a racially and sexually hostile environment.

The 2nd Circuit Court of Appeals tossed out the retaliation case, concluding that threatening violence is a dischargeable offense. But it ordered a trial on the hostile environment case, saying a jury should decide whether Con Ed ignored sexual and racial harassment and whitewashed its own investigation. (Williams v. Con Ed., No. 07-0687-CV, 2nd Cir., 2007)

Final note: Have you considered conducting surprise visits and spot inspections of work locations? There has been a recent rash of racially hostile incidents involving the appearance of nooses in the workplace. If you discover such hostile symbols, remove them immediately. Surprise inspections can discourage such nonsense. 

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