Most of the time, employers have a chance to prevent liability for sexual harassment. A solid no-harassment rule and a complaint process that is easy for employees to use will win all but the most egregious harassment cases—as long as employers act fast, investigate and fix the problem.
That’s true when the harasser is a co-worker and even sometimes if the harasser is a boss—as long as the company acts before the harasser punishes the employee.
But there is one situation in which the company is almost powerless. That’s when a boss harasses and then punishes the employee for turning down advances or threatens the employee with job loss if he or she doesn’t comply. So-called quid pro quo harassment means almost automatic liability.
There’s one thing you can do—prevent the next case. When you learn that a supervisor has sexually harassed and punished or threatened to punish a subordinate to gain cooperation or for rejecting an advance, send a strong message to all managers and supervisors. Promptly fire the harasser or demote him—or her—out of a supervisory position. Then reinstate the harassed employee.
Set an example so that other supervisors will think twice before harassing a subordinate.
Recent case: Sean Lees was accustomed to getting seven bonus payments per year at his job as a facilities manager. Then a female boss arrived on the scene. She asked Lees out for dinner and drinks, and the two drove Lees’ SUV from restaurant to restaurant. Finally, the two decided to drive to a bar, the Twisted Martini, for more drinks.
Lees drove and claims that while they were on the road, his boss straddled him. He pushed her away, afraid they would have an accident. Then, at the bar, he claims she tried to get him to dance by rubbing her bottom against his legs as he sat on a bar stool.
Lees finally persuaded her to drink coffee at a Denny’s restaurant before he dropped her off at her hotel. She allegedly got out of the SUV, yelled, “You’ll regret this!” and slammed the door.
When Lees’ bonus was due, he didn’t get it. Nor did he get the next three. He then filed an internal complaint, and the company separated the two. Then, just a month later, Lees was terminated for “budget” reasons. Lees sued.
The court said he had a classic quid pro quo harassment case if he could convince a jury his story was true. It sent the case to trial. (Lees v. Dynamic Educational Systems, No. 3:06-CV-1106, MD FL, 2008)
Advice: Whom do you believe? Sometimes, it may seem as if harassment cases—even involving managers and subordinates—boil down to he said/she said. That’s when it may be time to bring in an expert in harassment investigations—someone trained in managing investigations and determining what happened. Always involve counsel right away, too.
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