You need an open-door policy encouraging employees to come forward with sexual harassment claims. If you show you mean business—by appropriately responding to harassment charges—chances are employees will lose lawsuits if they decline to use the open door and instead suffer sexual harassment in silence.
Recent case: Kimberly Lauterborn knew her employer had an open-door sexual harassment policy because she once complained that a supervisor was harassing her. In that case, the company investigated and immediately fired the supervisor when he confessed.
Later, Lauterborn went on an out-of-state assignment. She called from the job site and told her boss she wanted to come home to care for her son. In reality, she thought yet another supervisor was harassing her. The company said it didn’t have any work for her if she returned, and she ended up losing her job.
Lauterborn sued, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation. But the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals refused to reinstate the lawsuit a lower court had dismissed. It said Lauterborn knew that if she had reported the alleged harassment, the company would have acted to protect her. Therefore, Lauterborn had acted unreasonably, and her employer wasn’t liable for the alleged harassment. (Lauterborn v. R&T Mechanical, No. 06-4655, 3rd Cir., 2008)
Final note: No policy can save an employer from every sexual harassment claim. An employer may be liable for so-called quid pro quo harassment if a supervisor fires or otherwise punishes an employee for turning down sexual advances. But even in such a case, employers can help mitigate the damage if, after finding out what happened, they make the employee whole by reinstating her or otherwise making up for the damage done.
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