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Don’t discount cost of harassment lawsuit—Even if you win

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,FMLA Guidelines,Hiring,HR Management,Human Resources,Leaders & Managers,Management Training

Lots of employers win sexual harassment lawsuits, but not until they have had to air their dirty laundry in public—and pay for the privilege, too. That’s one reason to insist on a professional workplace free of sexual innuendo and harassing behavior.

HR performs one of its most valuable services when it impresses on management the high cost of winning a sexual harassment lawsuit. Simply put, common sense rules and a zero tolerance for boorish and sexually explicit talk and conduct are much less expensive than litigation, even if you win.

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First come the direct costs: hiring attorneys, plus possible premium increases for liability insurance following a claim. Then there are the indirect costs: the time spent defending the case. Employees have to submit sworn depositions, taking them away from their job duties. Someone also has to manage the litigation and serve as the liaison with the attorneys.

Finally, there are the inevitable news stories. Reporters love covering sexual harassment trials because the headlines pull in readers. Consider the following case and the negative publicity generated by the lurid testimony.

Recent case: Thomas Strickland worked as a salesman for Greensboro-based Automotive Fasteners Inc. (AFI). He sued the company and his former supervisor, Donna Myers, for sexual harassment and assault. The salesman claimed Myers touched him between the legs when he was drinking from a water fountain.

He also accused Myers and several co-workers of showing nude pictures, making lewd jokes and making sexual advances toward him. One co-worker exposed her breasts in the office, he said, and Myers allowed a male co-worker to grab her breast.

During testimony, however, Strickland could recall almost no details of any of the instances he described. But the defendants, who told the truth under oath, filled in the blanks. Co-workers recounted many of the sexual jokes they told, and Myers even described an instance Strickland hadn’t complained about, when a large female co-worker embarrassed him by taking him in her arms and picking him up.

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State battery charges against Myers survived, as she admitted touching Strickland without his consent. But AFI obtained summary judgment on the rest of the charges, due mostly to the vagueness of the salesman’s testimony. Strickland could not say for certain whether he had complained to AFI, let alone when. Even regarding the water fountain incident, he could not recall whether Myers had touched his genitals or just his leg.

As for the antics recounted by the AFI staff, the judge quoted Hartsell v. Duplex Products (4th Circuit, 1997): “Title VII is not a federal guarantee of refinement and sophistication in the workplace.” (Strickland v. Jewell, et al., No. 1:06-CV-144, MD NC, 2007)

Final note: If not for the salesman’s lousy memory, the case might have turned out badly for AFI. Encourage employees to maintain a professional work environment.

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