Workplaces change as new employees come and old employees go. Before you know it, your workforce has changed dramatically.
Have your supervisors and managers kept up with the changes by regularly reminding all employees—new and old—how they can report alleged sexual harassment? If not, you need to set up a training schedule. It’s the best way to ensure no employee will come out of left field with a sexual harassment complaint, take it to court—and win.
Recent case: Barbara Hitchens worked at a correctional facility as a guard. She claimed a civilian co-worker had sexually harassed her while they were working in the kitchen.
Hitchens knew her employer had a way to report sexual harassment, but she didn’t use it. Instead, she went directly to the EEOC and filed a complaint. As soon as her employer got a copy of the complaint, it moved the co-worker, stopping any possible harassment.
Hitchens sued anyway, alleging her employer allowed a sexually hostile work environment to exist.
But the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals dismissed her case. It reasoned that the employer had no way of knowing what allegedly took place until it got the EEOC complaint. It then acted promptly. It wasn’t the employer’s fault that Hitchens ignored the harassment policy and complaint process. (Hitchens v. Montgomery County, No. 06-4819, 3rd Cir., 2008)
Final note: Employers are liable only for co-worker harassment they know or should know is going on. That knowledge can come in several ways: Employees may report harassment directly to or the evidence may be plain for anyone to see. That’s why HR should consider spot workplace inspections to look for telltale signs like vulgar graffiti.
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