Maria Gaines, a corrections officer at a New Jersey county jail, claimed that one evening her supervisor grabbed her and kissed her. Then he allegedly joked about it with other high-ranking officers in Gaines' presence.
Gaines told co-workers about the harassment but refused to file an internal complaint. Instead, she went straight for a lawsuit against her supervisor and the jail, alleging violations of a state discrimination law.
A trial court sided with the employer, saying that Gaines failed to report the harassment and that the employer's written policy created a shield to liability.
But the New Jersey Supreme Court sided with Gaines, saying that she didn't file a formal report partly because of the employer's lack of follow-through on its harassment policy. Although the employer had a written policy and reporting procedure, managers and supervisors were never trained on the policy. And the court said the absence of "effective preventative mechanisms," such as training, is strong evidence that an employer has been negligent in monitoring and preventing harassment. (Gaines v. Bellino, et al., No. A-47-01, N.J. Supreme Ct., 2002)
Advice: It doesn't seem fair that an employee can blow off your harassment reporting procedure and jump right to a lawsuit. But the court said anti-harassment efforts "must be more than mere words."
That's why you can't just play defense against harassment with a written policy, you must play offense with effective training of your staff, at least your managers and supervisors.
Think of your anti-harassment efforts as a three-domino defense: 1) a well-written policy 2) reporting and investigation procedures, and 3) consistent employee training. If one domino falls, your entire defense could go down.