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Immediately address every harassment complaint

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

Don’t think that by ignoring obvious harassment, it will go away. More likely, the offensive be­­havior will escalate—and may even turn into a brawl or worse.

Sadly, even if you end up termi­nating both parties, you may end up legally responsible for the harassment.

Recent case: Jesse, who is black and over 70 years old, came out of retirement to work. He found himself being harassed at lunch, as a co-worker repeatedly called him racially charged names.

Jesse complained and was told to avoid the co-worker. When that didn’t work, he began eating lunch outside the lunchroom, bringing with him his own small refrigerator and microwave. When word reached the harasser that Jesse had complained, the behavior escalated. The co-worker began a silent campaign of walking by, throwing hostile looks and kicking boxes at Jesse. Soon, the co-worker began physically pushing Jesse.

Jesse continued to complain, but no one in HR or management did anything. That’s when Jesse crafted a nail-studded bat and brought it to work with the aim of scaring the harasser. They got into a brawl and Jesse was fired over the fight.

He sued, alleging he had en­­dured the harassment for months until he couldn’t take it anymore.

The employer wanted the case dismissed, arguing that Jesse’s violent response was a legitimate discharge reason.

The court refused to toss out the case, reasoning that even if the discharge was legitimate, the employer could still be liable for the co-worker’s racial harassment over the months leading up to the brawl. (Feld v. Penn Manu­­fac­­turing, No. 13-4438, ED PA, 2014)

Final note: Imagine how this will play in front of a jury—an old man coming out of retirement to work being harassed for months until he couldn’t take it anymore.

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