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20 years is too late to file harassment suit

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Here’s some good news for employers that work hard to prevent sexual harassment. Employees who wait decades to report harassment won’t get far if their employer had an effective harassment policy and enforced it.

Recent case: Deborah Leeth worked for Tyson Foods for 20 years, much of that time as a quality control technician, checking processed chicken for contamination and safe temperatures. When staffing was short, however, she sometimes had to perform less desirable work.

After refusing a temporary assignment, Leeth was suspended for three days. That’s when she decided to sue over alleged sexual harassment.

Leeth claimed her shift manager had been behaving inappropriately for 20 years. She said the man invited her out, made excuses to touch her, made rude and sometimes lewd comments about sexual acts he wanted to engage in and generally acted like a rube.

Tyson Foods explained it had a solid anti-harassment policy in place that guaranteed a thorough investigation if an employee complained.

It said Leeth had twice backed down from an opportunity to expose her manager’s behavior. The first time, her direct supervisor asked Leeth if the manager was bothering her. Leeth said he was “hitting a nerve” but didn’t elaborate. The second time, Leeth reported that the manager had asked her out, but also told her supervisor not to do anything about it.

The court tossed out the harassment complaint. It reasoned that Leeth had not taken advantage of the company’s willingness to stop harassment by not providing enough information to trigger an investigation. (Leeth v. Tyson Foods,  No. 10-14849, 11th Cir., 2011)

Final note: Regularly remind employees about your harassment and discrimination policies. Invite complaints, promise prompt action and that you will investigate. That way, there’s no excuse for employee inaction.

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