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HR and supervisors chuckle at vicious harassment, but Ohio jury gets the last laugh

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Question: Think you’ve got a dysfunctional workplace? Take a stroll through the recent 6th Circuit ruling in Parker v. General Extrusions. The case describes a workplace in which Nancy Parker, one of the few female employees on the machine-shop floor, was repeatedly taunted, called names and physically harassed. The response from managers and HR ranged from mild rebukes to outright humor.

At one point, a co-worker called Parker a “f***ing wh*re” and made vulgar comments about her sexual activities. Parker complained to the foreman. His response? “That could be considered a compliment.”

One especially cruel male co-worker repeatedly called Parker a “sl*t,” “wh*re” and “crybaby” (often in the presence of the shift foreman). That co-worker hid her work equipment and even threw objects at her. HR wasn’t informed. Instead, the shift foreman “generally tried to hush it up and tried to keep it in-house when these kinds of complaints arose.”

When HR finally did learn of an incident in which a co-worker used the intercom to make heavy breathing noises at Parker, the HR director reportedly chuckled at the incident, saying she should expect a certain amount of sexual banter in a shop setting. He gave the co-worker a verbal warning for “horseplay.” (Parker v. General Extrusions, No. 06-3353, 6th Cir., 2007)

How did the case end … and what lessons can be learned?

As you can guess, Parker quit and filed a Title VII sexual harassment lawsuit. Not surprisingly, a jury concluded that she worked in a sexually hostile environment. It awarded her $25,000 in actual damages, lost wages and mental suffering. But it didn’t stop there.

The court concluded that she was entitled to a bonus—another $75,000 worth of punitive damages—because the HR director largely ignored her complaints.

The lesson: It’s management’s job to take all harassment complaints seriously. The quickest path to being hit with punitive damages is to ignore complaints or make light of them. That applies not only to HR, but to line supervisors, too.

Your anti-harassment policy should make clear that supervisors have a duty to step in when they see or hear harassment. At the very least, supervisors must report the harassment to HR. That certainly didn’t happen in this workplace. Would it happen in yours?

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