Harassment victim can’t choose punishment

Employers know they have to act fast when an employee complains about a hostile work environment caused by a co-worker’s actions. They have an obligation to investigate and come up with an effective way to stop the harassment and prevent it from happening again. However, that doesn’t mean the alleged victim gets to choose the remedy.

Recent case: Douglas, who is black, worked for Frontier Telephone. The employer had a robust anti-discrimination and harassment policy that allowed workers several ways to report any problems.

While on an assignment, a white co-worker made a comment using a term that combined a racial slur and another word to suggest that something they observed in the field had been improperly installed. Douglas objected and the co-worker offered up several excuses, including that he had heard the term growing up and didn’t realize how offensive it was. The co-worker never repeated the slur.

The next day, Douglas told another co-worker what had happened. The co-worker then repeated the slur several times.

Douglas went to HR and complained. He demanded never to have to work with the second co-worker again. Instead, the co-worker was admonished that using the word violated company policy, and received a three-day unpaid suspension. In addition, the company designed a new diversity course that all employees had to take.

Douglas sued anyway, alleging the employer hadn’t done enough.

The court disagreed and said it was up to the employer—not the victim—to decide what discipline to impose. Douglas conceded that the hostility stopped. Therefore, he couldn’t argue that the actions the employer took weren’t reasonable and designed to stop and prevent harassment. His lawsuit was dismissed. (Hill v. Frontier Telephone, WD NY, 2018)