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Ignore harassment at your peril: It could embolden harasser and end in disaster

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It isn’t enough just to have a sexual harassment policy. You have to enforce it, investigating all complaints and then putting a stop to any behavior that could reasonably be interpreted as sexual harassment.

Otherwise, the harasser might simply grow bolder. And that can spell disaster, especially if a jury winds up hearing from lots of other employees who came forward to complain over the course of months or years before the harassment got bad enough to warrant a lawsuit. As the following case shows, judges will often allow juries to hear from other, earlier victims.

Their testimonies can strengthen claims that employees had to work in a hostile environment—and that the employer knew or should have known that ignoring harassment complaints would make the situation worse.

Recent case: Lespia King was 22 years old when she went to work as a sheriff’s deputy. King was a slight woman, just 5 feet  4 inches tall and weighing only 120 pounds. Her new supervisor was the sheriff, a man who towered over her at 6 feet 4 inches tall and 270 pounds.

When she was hired, the sheriff, George McMillan, explained that the department had strict rules against sexual harassment and that he wouldn’t tolerate harassing conduct. But at the same time, he told his employees that he was “a touchy-feely person” who often touched people when he talked to them.

King soon found out exactly how touchy-feely her boss was. Sometimes he would try to hug her and cup her buttocks in his hands. When she was up for a transfer, he suggested that if she sat on his lap, he would approve the move. Then he pulled King onto his lap and kissed her on the mouth. At a dinner for sheriff’s department employees, he again grabbed her, prompting at least one employee to comment that King had been “struck by the gropealope.”

King told McMillan she wanted to quit. He offered her a promotion if she would again sit on his lap and kiss him. She ran from the room, crying—and then she resigned.

She sued for sexual harassment. During the trial, several other female employees testified that they had complained about similar harassment. The jury awarded King $225,000.

The department appealed, arguing that it should get a new trial because the other women’s testimonies were unfairly prejudicial. It reasoned that, when the court let in the testimonies, the jury wasn’t passing judgment just on the King incidents, but on other alleged harassment, too.

The 4th Circuit Court of Appeals refused to overturn the decision. It reasoned that other women’s testimonies showed several things, including that the employer was aware it had a sexual harassment problem, that the workplace was permeated with sexual harassment and that the harassment was based on the sex of the targets. (King v. McMillan, et al., No. 08-1667, 4th Cir., 2010)

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