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Outrageous co-worker harassment? 4 quick actions can help you avoid liability

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

It’s going to happen eventually: An employee will report egregious behavior that is clearly sexual harassment. If your organization is lucky, the harasser will be a co-worker, which means you will have a shot at mitigating the damage with quick action.

Here’s what to do when the co-worker harassment call comes in:

1. Get the facts down. Persuade the employee to put her account in writing, but don’t make action contingent on her doing so.

2. Immediately launch an investigation. If you believe that a criminal act has occurred (such as a sexual assault or battery), suggest filing a police report.

3. Separate the employee from the alleged harasser, but don’t do so in a way that seems to punish the employee.

4. Complete the investigation as quickly as practical, but make it thorough. Inform everyone involved of the result.

Recent case: Michelle Satterfield worked as a nurse for the Franklin County Sheriff’s Office. When a deputy who also worked in the office learned Satterfield had separated from her husband, he asked for her telephone number. Satterfield gave it to him, claiming she believed he was just being supportive.

Then the deputy called her while she was driving home from work. Satterfield said the deputy told her he wanted to take her to a motel and then described in detail the sexual acts he wanted to perform on her. She hung up.

Later, while she was at work, the deputy allegedly walked up behind Satterfield and said, “Just let me touch it once,” and proceeded to grab her breast and try to place his hand between her legs. She pushed him away.

Satterfield immediately called a sergeant on duty. While she was on the phone, the deputy returned. When she hung up, he allegedly grabbed her head, twisted her around, and forcibly kissed her. Again, she managed to get away.

The next day, she complained to her supervisor. The department separated the two, telling the deputy to stay away from Satterfield.

Then it launched an all-out investigation. Investigators found out the deputy had previously harassed another nurse, who had quit without filing a complaint. The deputy was ordered to resign and did.

Satterfield sued anyway, alleging she had been subjected to a sexually hostile work environment.

The court agreed, but still didn’t hold the sheriff’s office liable. It reasoned that the investigation was prompt and thorough and that it effectively stopped the harassment. Since that is all that is required when the harasser is a co-worker, the sheriff’s office was in the clear. (Satterfield v. Karnes, et al., No. 2:08-CV-387, SD OH, 2010)

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