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Don’t let policies rot on a shelf; educate staff or lose your defense

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Sprint wasn't ignorant of sexual harassment. The company had distributed a human resources policy guide to all employees in 1990 and posted it in all offices. Its code of ethics urges workers to report harassment to a supervisor. Another booklet further details the company's sexual harassment policy.

How could such a well-prepared company go wrong? In the case of employee Bridgette Frederick, it is accused of failing to educate workers about the policy, then dropping the ball when she complained. Here's what happened:Frederick's supervisor would stare at her, blow her kisses, kiss her on the cheek and even touch her breast. She complained to a couple of managers, but they didn't do anything. She also asked to be transferred from the supervisor's department, but HR never responded.

The supervisor was eventually fired when a different employee complained about his actions. Frederick filed suit for sexual harassment. Sprint asked that the case be tossed out, pointing to its numerous policies and the fact that the supervisor had been promptly fired.

But an appellate court let the case go to trial. Reason: Frederick said she never saw any of the company's policies and wasn't familiar with the complaint process. Also, Sprint managers had failed to act when Frederick spoke up. (Frederick v. Sprint/United Management Co., No. 99-13958, 11th Cir., 2001)

Advice: A common misconception is that having a sexual harassment policy will insulate you from liability. It's only the first step.

You need to educate employees on the policy and then enforce it. To achieve these goals, your policy must be readily accessible in your handbook or on a Web page, or posted in the workplace.

Take time to make sure employees understand the policy. One way they can't claim ignorance is if you require that they sign an acknowledgement form saying they've read and understood the policy. Annual refresher sessions also help.

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