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Be patient if worker alleges minor harassment

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management

Employers have an obligation to prevent sexual harassment and to end it when it does occur. But many times, what a thin-skinned employee considers harassment isn’t actually serious enough to rise to that level.

When that happens, smart employers exercise patience. They understand the very real danger of winning a sexual harassment case, but losing the retaliation case that follows.

Recent case: Debra-Ann Wellman worked for DuPont as an administrative assistant until she went on leave after complaining that her supervisor had been sexually harassing her.

The company investigated and concluded that no sexual harassment had taken place. Still, because Wellman was diagnosed with stress, she was allowed to take seven months of short-term disability leave.

When Wellman’s doctor said she could return to work, DuPont had her undergo an independent psychiatric evaluation. The exam said Wellman exhibited “traits of borderline, hysterical and narcissistic personality.” However, it concluded she wasn’t psychologically disabled.

HR met with her to discuss her return. She was informed she could return to her old job or perhaps apply for an incapability pension. Wellman would have a different boss if she returned.

Wellman asked for additional time to decide, and DuPont gave her another week to weigh her options. But the next week, she didn’t show up for her meeting with HR. DuPont then terminated Wellman for job abandonment, but told her she would be eligible for rehire if a position opened up.

She sued, alleging she was fired for complaining about harassment.

The court didn’t buy it. Instead, it commended DuPont for acting reasonably. (Wellman v. DuPont Dow Elastomers, et al., No. 10-4048, 3rd Cir., 2011)

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