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The best way to prevent a lawsuit is to promptly respond to every harassment complaint you receive from employees. Conduct a thorough investigation, reach a conclusion and document that you followed up and found no further problems.

Be especially sure to show how you counseled or disciplined the harasser and that he or she did not repeat the conduct.

Here’s why: By acting fast and following up, employers stop potential lawsuits. If an employee who got results when she did complain about harassment later says she didn’t report other incidents, it’s going to be very difficult to prove that her employer lacked an effective harassment policy. Courts will look at the company track record on the complaints it did handle, and conclude that the employee should have reported the other incidents, too—or forever hold their peace.

Recent case: Willie Campbell, a black woman, worked in a largely white, male environment at a paper products factory. The company had a clear harassment policy, and Campbell knew how to use it.

In one incident, Campbell was eating meatballs at lunch, and a co-worker said, “I have some balls you can eat.” The company counseled the co-worker and he never made any other offensive comments. The same treatment produced the same result when a different co-worker said he wanted to get rid of all the “women and minorities.”

Later, Campbell sued the company, alleging she had been harassed other times, too.

The court said that since Campbell could have alerted management, she unreasonably didn’t take advantage of the company’s harassment policies. The company therefore wasn’t liable for any of the other co-worker harassment. (Campbell v. Rock Tenn Company, No. 06-CV-4272, DC MN, 2008) 

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