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Harassment: Your response makes all the difference

In each case below, employers faced complaints of egregious harassment. One company dropped the ball and paid the price.
The other was able to get the case tossed out of court. Here's what you can learn from their examples:

by on
in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Human Resources

Case 1: The 'sex'retary

Lesley Gentry's boss constantly hugged her, kissed her and made suggestive comments, such as asking her to "try out the back counter" with him. He gave her cartoon drawings of sexual positions and asked her to pick her favorites. And her boss' supervisor openly told people that Gentry was a "sex"retary.

Company's response: Twice Gentry told the benefits coordinator that she was uncomfortable with the touching and hugging. But the benefits coordinator told her to develop a thick skin. While the company had a sexual harassment policy, even company officials disagreed on who should be taking complaints.

Result: Gentry sued for sexual harassment and won $25,000 in damages. The company argued that Gentry never used the words "sexual harassment" when complaining about the boss's groping and rude comments. But that argument flopped. (Gentry v. Export Packaging Co., No. 00-2367, 7th Cir., 2001)

Advice: Employees don't have to call their impairments "disabilities" to merit accommodations. They don't even have to officially request "Family and Medical Leave" to be entitled to protection under the FMLA. And they don't have to call unwanted hugging and touching "sexual harassment."

Your sexual harassment training should clearly instruct employees how to file a complaint. But you must also train managers who receive complaints that they have to jump if anything "looks and sounds" like sexual harassment, regardless of the name the complainer gives it.

Case 2: The 'Haitian death stick'

Charles Robinson, an African-American, had several incidents to back up his racial harassment charges. In his locker, he once found a clothesline tied in the shape of a noose. A co-worker referred to his black Labrador as "African-American." A "Caution" sign was altered with a picture of a monkey and Robinson's name. And a co-worker showed Robinson a news article about New York City police assaulting a Haitian immigrant with a plunger, then brandished a broom handle emblazoned with the words "Haitian Death Stick."

Company's response: It took quick action after each of his complaints. It suspended the employee who made the "death stick" for three days and required his department to attend diversity training. It investigated the noose incident and, when no one came forward, it installed a surveillance camera in the locker room. The worker who made the dog comment was given a warning and ordered to apologize to Robinson.

Result: The company was able to get the case thrown out on summary judgment because it responded "promptly and adequately" to each incident. (Robinson v. Valmont Industries, No. 99-4198, 8th Cir., 2001)

Advice: Even the ugliest instances of harassment don't have to result in employer liability if you take all claims of harassment seriously. Look into each claim and document how you investigated and resolved it. If you find harassment, take corrective action that reflects its severity.

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