Don’t Ignore—or Make Light of—Harassment Complaints

Remind supervisors, managers and HR staff: Don’t brush off or make light of sexual harassment complaints. Doing so can just add more fuel to the fire.

When employees are ignored, they may begin to see every slight that comes their way—getting the cold shoulder at meetings or missing out on promotions—as retaliation for voicing their concerns about sexually hostile behavior. And that can make them much more likely to file lawsuits against your company.

Recent case: Rachel Spade and Rhonda Myers worked at a California Pepsi bottling facility. They claimed that co-workers continually made sexist and sexual comments in the workplace. When they complained to managers (even an HR manager who personally heard some of the comments), no one did anything. In fact, one manager said she was “sick of” hearing their complaints. This allegedly went on for four years.

Eventually, the women said they were being retaliated against by being ignored at meetings and not getting promotions. They filed a sexual harassment and retaliation lawsuit under both Title VII of the Civil Rights Act and the California Fair Employment and Housing Act (FEHA).

The court ordered a trial. It noted that FEHA makes it illegal for an employer to allow unwelcome physical or verbal conduct of a sexual nature that is sufficiently severe or pervasive to alter the conditions of employment and create an abusive working environment. The conduct the women described, if true, would meet that standard. (Spade and Myers v. Pepsi Bottling Group, et al., No. 2:07-CV-362, ED CA, 2007)

Final note: Act promptly when an employee claims sexual harassment. No one in HR or management can afford to ignore such a complaint. Remember, you have an obligation to train employees on your sexual harassment policy and to promptly investigate any complaints. Ignoring a complaint won’t make it go away, no matter how “sick of it” you are.