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Sensitive Subject: Reacting to Same-Sex Harassment Complaints

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in Case In Point,Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

You may think your managers know how to respond to harassment claims. But what if those complaints are about male-on-male or female-on-female harassment? That’s not what harassment looked like in the training video! Would your managers shrug it off--as in the following case--by saying, “Don’t be so sensitive. Go back to work!” If so, get ready to write a big check—and don’t be so “sensitive” about how many zeros your company might have to put at the end.

Case In Point: Paul Reed worked as a salesman at Dillard's department store in Florida. One day, his male supervisor asked Reed to come into the stockroom. When Reed arrived, the supervisor began to masturbate in front of him. Reed immediately reported the incident to the store manager.

The manager’s response? He told Reed that the supervisor had worked for Dillard’s for 14 years, “So get back to work.”

Several months later, Reed reported to the store manager that the male supervisor again had sexually harassed him, this time by grabbing him from behind and pressing up against his body. The store manager’s response this time? He told Reed he was being “hypersensitive” and “overreacting.”

In a third incident, the supervisor grabbed Reed’s genitals while Reed was urinating. Reed broke loose and clocked out. Three strikes and Reed was out--he never returned to the job.

A few months later, the store manager received a complaint from another employee that the supervisor had again masturbated in front of him. Finally, the store manager took the complaint seriously and notified the district office. He was told to fire the supervisor, which he did.

Prompted by both employees’ complaints, the EEOC pursued a sexual harassment lawsuit against Dillard’s, claiming it subjected both workers to a hostile work environment.

Not us, cried Dillard’s. The store argued it wasn’t liable because it had an anti-harassment policy and had fired the supervisor. In any event, it argued, the supervisor's conduct wasn’t so bad as to constitute a hostile work environment. Oh, really? (EEOC v. Dillard’s, 3/23/09)

What happened next and what lessons can be learned?

The court rejected Dillard's argument and found that Dillard's anti-harassment policy could not absolve it of liability if the policy hadn’t been effectively implemented. The store manager’s failure to report Reed’s two claims was a violation of the company’s own reporting procedures.

The court noted that the store manager held one of three positions detailed in the anti-harassment policy’s reporting procedure. When he twice failed to escalate the complaints to the district office, he violated Dillard’s policy.

3 Lessons Learned … Without Going to Court:

1. Train “it.” Anyone designated in your anti-harassment policy’s reporting procedures needs to know they could be tagged “it” with a complaint. Train them so they know “it.”

2. Script “it.” The store manager should have responded by saying, “Thank you for letting me know. You are important to us at Dillard’s. I will help you immediately.” Then he should have, in the next breath, contacted the district manager.

3. Stop “it.” The manager had an obligation that if he saw “it,” heard “it,” or heard about “it,” he should have stopped “it,” but never ignored “it."

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