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Investigate complaints, pronto

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Employment Law,HR Management,Human Resources

The male workers at an Azteca restaurant constantly mocked Antonio Sanchez for his effeminate ways. They swore at him and referred to the waiter as "she" and "her."

Sanchez finally complained to his manager and the company's HR director, even though he knew the company's policy directed him to report harassment to the corporate equal employment opportunity officer. The HR official promised to follow up with spot checks, and Sanchez didn't complain further.

Later, Sanchez walked off the job after an argument with the assistant manager, and he was fired. Then he sued for sex discrimination.

A lower court dismissed the case, saying the harassment didn't take place "because of (his) sex" as required under Title VII. But the appellate court reinstated it, saying the abuse was closely linked to gender because it was based on Sanchez' perceived failure to conform to male stereotypes. (Nichols v. Azteca Restaurant Enterprises Inc., No. 99-35579, 9th Cir., 2001)

Advice: Investigate any complaints of sexual harassment right away, even if you don't think they fit the typical pattern. This company put the responsibility on Sanchez to report further harassment, without even an oral warning to the harassers. This kind of tell-me-if-it-happens-again response won't keep you out of the courtroom.

Second, realize that workers can sue for sex bias when they're harassed for not meeting gender-based stereotypes. More than 10 years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court let a woman sue under Title VII after she said she was denied a partnership because she didn't conform to certain female stereotypes.

Finally, there's a big difference between "occasional teasing" and a hostile work environment. Even if the victim occasionally jokes with the harassers, that doesn't get your company off the hook.

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