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When serial harasser strikes, you can’t just move victims

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,Firing,HR Management,Human Resources

Do you have a serial harasser on your hands? Has the finger been pointed at the same individual more than once? If so, don’t try to weasel your way out of a confrontation by simply separating the harasser from the harassed. You may get away with it once, but you’re courting trouble (and a potentially big lawsuit) if you try it again.

The bottom line: Courts have little patience for an employer that thinks the best way to solve a harassment complaint is to move the victim.

Recent case:
Bill Robinson worked for Anheuser-Busch brewery when a co-worker said he made lewd comments and sent anonymous notes to her. A handwriting expert nailed Robinson as the likely suspect, and the brewery fired him. The company had to reinstate him after he filed a union grievance. That was the first incident.

Then another female employee complained to her supervisor that Robinson was “really trying to make [her] job difficult” without going into specifics. When she requested a transfer, Anheuser-Busch agreed.

Robinson targeted a third woman. She complained about very specific acts, including sexual solicitations and lewd comments. HR investigated, and even though the investigator said he believed Robinson had acted in a sexually inappropriate manner, the brewery concluded it was unable to substantiate her claims. It transferred her, too.

Finally, the brewery fired Robinson after two more women complained. In addition, several of the women reported that their cars or homes had been set on fire. Robinson eventually killed his girlfriend and himself before police could exclude or tie him to those fires.

The women sued, alleging the brewery had allowed a sexually hostile environment to exist. The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals allowed the second and third women’s cases to go forward because the remedy the brewery selected—transferring them—obviously was not an effective way to stop the harasser. It reasoned that once an employer knows its efforts to stop harassment aren’t working, it must take more urgent steps. Employers can’t just throw their hands up when their first efforts fail, nor can they keep transferring the victims.

On the other hand, the court did not allow the last two women’s claims to go forward. It reasoned that by firing Robinson right away, the brewery finally did something effective. (Hawkins, et al., v. Anheuser-Busch, Inc., No. 07-3235, 6th Cir., 2008)

Note: The brewery also couldn’t use its union contract as an excuse. Just because Robinson was reinstated after he filed a grievance did not mean that the company wasn’t liable for later additional harassment.

Final note: The 6th Circuit Court of Appeals also allowed one of the women to sue the brewery for co-worker retaliation. Robinson apparently had set her car on fire in retaliation for complaining—and there was evidence that Robinson even may have told one of his supervisors that he was responsible for the fire.

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