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Dust off your harassment policy or face the jury

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in Discrimination and Harassment,HR Management,Human Resources

Too many companies’ sexual-harassment policies are ancient history—drafted almost a decade ago after the U.S. Supreme Court laid down strict liability rules for how employers must protect employees from sexual harassment. But a dusty binder on a shelf won’t do anything to protect your company.

Make sure employees know about the policy. Investigate complaints fairly, quickly and without prejudice.

If you don’t, expect the EEOC to take up the case. The agency is taking increasing numbers of cases to federal court, serving as free counsel to harassed employees.

Recent case: Kari Wasylak went to the EEOC to report what happened when she followed the sexual harassment policy of her former employer, Smokin’ Joe’s Tobacco Shop, and complained about harassment to the HR office.

Wasylak said HR seemed skeptical when she alleged her supervisor propositioned her, asked sexually suggestive questions and generally made her uncomfortable with crude talk. Things went from bad to worse when HR sent an investigator, who yelled at Wasylak and belittled her for wanting to keep the investigation confidential. He recommended she be reprimanded for failing to cooperate.

The EEOC sued on Wasylak’s behalf and got approval for a jury trial. The court said just having a policy wasn’t enough to clear Smokin’ Joe’s. It also didn’t help that the employer's investigator admitted to the court he didn’t know what Title VII (of the Civil Rights Act) was. (EEOC v. Smokin’ Joe’s Tobacco Shop, No. 06-01758, ED PA, 2007)

Final tip: Keep harassment training current by setting a regular schedule—perhaps even require a brief refresher course at evaluation time. Plus, always include sexual harassment training in your new-employee orientation.  

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