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Even the best sexual harassment policy is useless without supervisor vigilance

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The following case offers a lesson for employers who think they have the sexual harassment problem solved. No policy will protect you if what is going on in the cubicles or on the shop floor is blatantly offensive.

It may not even matter that the offended or harassed employee didn’t follow your complaint policy and report the harassment to upper management. If she tried to talk to her immediate supervisor, that’s enough.

Recent case: Julie Gallagher quit her job at C.H. Robinson Worldwide after just four months. She sued, alleging that she’d worked in a sexually hostile environment. A lower court tossed out her case, but the 6th Circuit Court of Appeals has just reinstated the claims. Here’s why:

Gallagher’s job as a transportation specialist required her to work in a cubicle. The workplace included 20 sales employees and several support staff. Many times, Gallagher was the only female in the office. The cubicle workstations were arranged in pods in an open floor. Short dividers separated them, but they provided little privacy. Employees could easily see what was on co-workers’ computers and desks and could hear their conversations.

During her four-month tenure, Gallagher said the workplace was like a “guys’ locker room,” with frequent cursing and many derogatory comments directed at female customers and co-workers. Women were regularly referred to as “sluts,” “bitches” and worse. Gallagher herself was often told she was a “cow” with “milking udders” who “mooed” when she walked.

But that wasn’t the worst of it. Males also viewed sexually explicit pictures on their computers, left pornographic magazines open on their desks and traded sexually explicit photos of their girlfriends while discussing their sexual escapades and preferences.

Gallagher complained to her supervisors, who would tell the guys to clean up their act. They never did. Gallagher said they instead intensified their sexually explicit talk.

The company tried to defend itself in the lawsuit by claiming Gallagher hadn’t taken advantage of the company’s sexual harassment policy. That policy told employees they should report sexual harassment to the legal department, the branch HR manager or the branch manager.

The policy included the names and phone numbers for the legal department and HR office. In addition, the policy provided a third-party, toll-free hotline and an anonymous e-mail service for reporting sexual harassment.

While the trial court said Gallagher lost her case because she had failed to take advantage of the sexual-harassment reporting policy, the 6th Circuit disagreed. It said that by complaining to her direct supervisor, Gallagher had made an effort to get the problem fixed. It sent the case to trial. (Gallagher v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide, No. 08-3337, 6th Cir., 2009)

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