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Cut retaliation liability risk by taking action on all harassment complaints

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

All too often, sexual harassment involving just two people de­­volves into a he said/she said stand-off.

But if the alleged harassment occurs at work, you must act to stop it or you’ll risk liability.

Fortunately, you don’t have to be absolutely right about what happened. You just have to act reasonably to stop or prevent harassment, based on the facts you have.

Recent case: Gary Vaughn worked for the U.S. Department of Agri­­cul­­ture, as did his former girlfriend and housemate. Vaughn filed a race discrimination lawsuit against the department, which he eventually settled for $150,000.

Right before the case settled, his hours were changed in response to the former girlfriend’s complaint that Vaughn was sexually harassing her at work. She even produced a court order prohibiting Vaughn from approaching her.

Vaughn sued for retaliation, alleging the department had punished him for winning the settlement. He said the agency should have looked deeper into the allegations and would then have discovered that the former girlfriend was lying.

But the court rejected the claim. It reasoned that the department had an obligation to stop any harassment and could err on the side of caution by separating Vaughn from his former lover. (Vaughn v. Vilsack, No. 09-CV-455, SD IL, 2011)

Advice: Conduct a reasonable in­­vestigation by speaking with all parties. Seek witnesses and ask about any police or court reports that sub­­stan­­tiate the claims. Then act to protect the apparent victim.

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