Sexual harassment cases continue to plague employers. Whether the harassment allegations involve a co-worker or a supervisor, the bottom line is simple: You need a two-part defense. Be prepared to show a court that you:
- Went to great lengths to prevent harassment in the first place
- Put a fast and permanent stop to the harassment after those preventative efforts didn’t work.
Neither approach by itself will be enough.
Prevention should include a solid anti-harassment policy that explains what harassment is, how and where to complain about it and how your clear and prompt investigation process works. Then you must make certain that everyone—from the CEO to the janitor—knows about the policy and understands the consequences of harassment.
Second, your organization needs a rapid-response team authorized to take immediate action if harassment comes to light. The team must be trained to follow up to make certain there’s no retaliation or renewed harassment later.
Recent case: Elizabeth Bright and Carol Isaacs worked for Hill’s Pet Nutrition at its plant in Richmond, IN. The women complained that the men working with them routinely harassed them in an effort to get them to quit. The men allegedly barraged them with streams of slurs (including calling the women bitches, whores and worse), trying to get them to view pornographic images on company computers and generally giving the women the dirtiest jobs at work.
Bright and Isaacs complained to HR, and 11 men were suspended for two weeks.then went through the computers and purged all pornographic images.
But apparently that wasn’t enough—soon after, the women reported getting threats from some of the men, who had to explain to their wives why they were home for two weeks. Bright’s dog was shot, which she blamed on her co-workers. And porn reappeared on company computers. Bright and Isaacs sued for harassment.
The trial judge refused to let the jury consider anything that happened before Hill’s “fixed” the problem, reasoning that Hill’s investigated and punished the harassers. The trial jury sided with the company. But the 7th Circuit reinstated the lawsuit and ordered a new trial. It said that the totality of the harassment should be considered, not just what happened after the company punished the harassers. (Bright v. Hill’s Pet Nutrition, No. 06-3927, 7th Cir., 2007)
Advice: Don’t assume everyone took your anti-harassment policy and training to heart. The only way you can be certain there isn’t trouble lurking is to take a look—unannounced. Make spot inspections to rout out offensive graffiti on restroom walls, sexist posters on cubicle walls and pornographic screen savers on company computers. You may find a frat-house atmosphere lurking right under your nose.
Finally, make the prevention of sexual harassment a part of every manager’s job responsibilities. Punish those who don’t take it seriously. Nothing will make a supervisor keep employees in line like tying his or herand bonus to a harassment-free workplace.
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