It sometimes happens: Production floor or other entry-level employees lacking a—shall we say—sophisticated outlook on life go a little too far. Perhaps they play a practical joke that is offensive to a co-worker. Or they let fly with an insulting epithet.
Someone complains, and HR investigates. The culprits apologize, you send them to a harassment refresher course, and everything settles down.
Is the organization in the clear?
Probably, provided the “harassment” wasn’t so offensive as to shock the conscience—and you follow up to make sure the bullies really have stopped bullying.
Advice: Talk to the offended co-worker to verify there have been no repeat performances. If he or she acknowledges that things are back on track, you can probably put the matter to rest without stronger discipline.
Recent case: Matthew Ferguson, who has developmental impairments that inhibit his ability to communicate, worked on the floor at a commercial printing and manufacturing facility. He was in special education classes all through high school and still lives with his parents at age 30.
When two co-workers began teasing him, calling him “fat, stupid and dumb,” he got upset and complained to his supervisor. The company lectured the co-workers, who apparently teased everyone and not just Ferguson, about treating everyone with respect.
Ferguson also told his parents, who came to the plant to complain. They spoke with the HR office, which investigated but concluded the supervisor had solved the problem. In fact, Ferguson said that the co-workers didn’t bother him again.
But Ferguson still sued, alleging a hostile work environment. The court, however, refused to send the case to trial. It reasoned that the company promptly responded to Ferguson’s complaint and stopped the harassment. The company didn’t have to fire the co-workers, just stop the harassment. (Ferguson v. Quebecor, No. 1:06-CV-621, SD OH, 2008)
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