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Investigate, separate the parties when employee alleges co-worker harassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

When an employee claims a co-worker sexually harassed her, employers have to investigate the claim, even if there aren’t any witnesses. Getting to the truth requires a timely investigation, as well as immediately separating the co-workers.

If the investigation doesn’t convince you of the employee’s claims, you can refuse to discipline the accused co-worker.

Immediate action to mitigate any harm, followed by an honest and fair investigation, are all that’s required.

Recent case: Julianne worked as a firefighter in Utica. She claimed that in the spring of 2010, another firefighter sexually assaulted her at work. However, she didn’t complain to her supervisor until September.

The co-worker was immediately suspended pending an investigation and arbitration hearing. The city of Utica argued that the accused firefighter should be terminated and had Julianne testify. The arbitrator wasn’t persuaded and ordered the man reinstated.

Julianne then sued, alleging she had endured a hostile work environment.

The court dismissed her case. It concluded that the city had taken appropriate action as soon as she came forward by suspending her co-worker, investigating her claim and trying to have the co-worker terminated. That it was unsuccessful in persuading the arbitrator that Julianne’s account was true didn’t mean it was liable. (Burns v. City of Utica, et al., No. 14-706, 2nd Cir., 2014)

Final note: In this case, a union agreement required termination hearings before an arbitrator. In a nonunion environment, employers obviously have more control.

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