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Not sure it’s sexual harassment? Take steps to end it anyway

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Performance Reviews

Not every complaint about alleged sexual harassment turns out to be true. Sometimes, the harasser may simply be a difficult personality. He or she may have it in for all co-workers, and the harassment that someone complains about may be completely unrelated to sex.

That doesn’t mean, however, that you should ignore the behavior. Your best bet is to discipline the employee.

You can start with comparatively mild punishment, such as a warning, and progress to more serious sanctions like demotion, transfer or discharge.

Consider what happened in the following case. Although the employer investigated and concluded that sex had nothing to do with the alleged harassment, it punished the offending employee anyway. And a court then decided that the employer’s immediate, effective action cut its potential liability.

Recent case: Jacqueline Young worked as a certified occupational therapist assistant for a university hospital. She had trouble getting a subordinate to follow her directions, especially when she wanted him to perform seemingly menial tasks, such as washing dishes after patients’ therapy sessions. She complained to their mutual supervisors, who told the subordinate to follow Young’s directions.

The subordinate then began repeatedly bumping into Young and blocking her way while standing in doorways and hallways. That made Young uncomfortable. She again complained, this time suggesting that the behavior was sexual harassment.

Over time, two other women lodged similar complaints—as did male employees. In other words, the subordinate appeared to be an equal-opportunity workplace jerk, and his actions may not have been related to the sex of his co-workers at all.

Still, the hospital continued to impose progressive discipline. Meanwhile, Young found another job and quit. Eventually the university hospital apparently had enough of the subordinate’s act and terminated him. It also offered Young her job back.

But Young sued, alleging she had been forced to work in a sexually hostile environment and had no choice but to quit.

The court rejected her claims. It said that even if the subordinate’s activities had been sexual harassment, the university hospital had acted appropriately. It disciplined him each time and finally fired him when milder punishment didn’t alter his behavior. The court said the hospital’s actions were reasonably tailored to the situation and designed to stop the alleged harassment. (Young v. Temple University Hospital, No. 08-4375, 3rd Cir., 2009)

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