Employers that don’t immediately address allegations of sexual harassment—and stop it—will have a hard time defending themselves in court. Simply ignoring the complaint or telling the employee to take care of it herself is a recipe for disaster.
The harassed employee can quit, claiming constructive discharge—that the harassment was so severe, she had no choice but to resign.
Recent case: Unme worked as a prep cook at a café on a college campus. She quit her job after reporting a series of sexual assaults. She sued, alleging sexual harassment, sex discrimination and retaliation and claiming constructive discharge.
She told the court that she had complained to managers about the incidents. For example, she alleged that one co-worker grabbed her in the crotch while she was working and that another touched her bare legs when she came to work wearing shorts.
When she first complained, managers said they would speak with her co-workers. Nothing changed and she complained again. Still no change, except that her supervisor stopped speaking to her at all. That’s when she quit.
The café argued that the conduct she endured wasn’t sexual harassment and that it had responded by talking to her co-workers.
But the court said Unme had enough evidence to take her claim to trial. It concluded that, if proven, the behavior was sexual harassment and her supervisor’s refusal to speak to her could be retaliation. (Rosh v. The Gold Standard Café at Penn, No. 16-1676, ED PA, 2016)
Final note: Avoid liability by responding promptly to sexual harassment complaints. Simply telling the employee to handle it isn’t enough—nor is telling co-workers to stop. You must follow up to verify the conduct ceased. You must discipline co-workers for their misconduct. New EEOC guidance provides examples of appropriate action.