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Discipline OK for stonewalling investigation

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Sexual harassment allegations often come down to he said/she said arguments. Without hearing from both sides, there’s no way to figure out what happened.

If one of the people involved in the allegations won’t talk, you can discipline him for refusing to co­­operate.

Recent case: Michael Wells was an instructional coach at a high school. A co-worker, the assistant principal at the school, volunteered to participate in a dunking booth as part of a fundraiser. After her turn in the booth, she used a restroom in her office to change into dry clothes. She absent-mindedly left her bra on the bathroom doorknob.

Wells, who had once turned down the assistant principal’s request for a date, took a cellphone photo of the bra and passed it around. Later, he claimed the picture was evidence that the assistant principal was engaging in sexual harassment.

The assistant principal found out that Wells circulated the photo, and she complained to HR, alleging sexual harassment. Wells said he was the one who had been harassed—first by being asked out on a date and also by the bra display.

But he refused to participate in any investigation and was transferred to another school. Then Wells sued, alleging sexual harassment and retaliation.

The court threw out his case. It reasoned that Wells had been punished for not cooperating in a legitimate sexual harassment investigation and not because of his own sexual harassment allegation. (Wells v. Los Angeles Unified School District, No. B225059, Court of Appeal of California, 2nd Appellate District, 2011)

Final note: The court ex­­plained that an uncooperative em­­ployee makes it hard for an employer to fulfill its duty to promptly in­­­­ves­­ti­­gate sexual har­­assment complaints. It wasn’t willing to punish the employer for trying to do the right thing.

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