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Pursue claims, even if complaining worker backs off

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Issue: Courts place the burden on employers to complete investigations of sexual harassment complaints, even in the face of reluctant complainants.

Risk: Failing to pursue complaints actively will come back to haunt you in court.

Action: Pursue all complaints, even if the employee doesn't, and document all your efforts to resolve the issue.

You know to investigate harassment complaints when they land on your desk. But what if the complaining employee shows a lack of interest in her initial complaint or doesn't follow up on your company's complaint process? Should you still pursue the investigation? Most certainly, yes, as the following case shows.

Recent case: Rena Hardy, a custodian at a university, alleged that her supervisor sexually harassed her. Hardy spoke to her supervisor's boss and, when problems continued, she requested another meeting. But she failed to attend that second meeting or another scheduled meeting. She later discussed the harassment with the university's Office for Access & Equity. She was given a form to complete, but didn't submit it for two months.

When Hardy filed a sexual-harassment suit, the university argued that it took reasonable steps to prevent the harassment but Hardy failed to follow through on her complaint. A federal appeals court sided with Hardy.

Reason: She may have been tardy in complaints, but that doesn't equal a "complete failure" to use the complaint system. Once she made the initial complaint, it was up to the university to follow through, but it didn't. (Hardy v. University of Illinois at Chicago, 7th Cir., 2003)

Advice: Courts see your duty to other potential victims of harassment as requiring that you do everything possible to follow through. To encourage a victim's participation (and prove your "good faith" to the court), send reminders of meetings to complaining workers and document all correspondence.

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