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Promptly investigate co-worker harassment—and ensure employees know how to report it

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in Discrimination and Harassment,Human Resources

There’s no time like now to review your sexual harassment policies and processes.

It’s been more than a decade since the U.S. Supreme Court issued its landmark decision in Burlington Industries v. Ellerth. Don’t become complacent.

Instead, take the time to make sure you are taking full advantage of the guidance offered in the decision.

First, remember that sexual harassment by a supervisor is the most dangerous kind. If the employee ends up losing her job, is demoted or otherwise suffers an adverse employment action because of such harassment, there is little you can do except open the purse strings.

That’s not the case with most sexual harassment complaints, however—the ones that occur between co-workers.

Even a one-time outrageous incident won’t automatically mean your organization is liable if you have a good sexual harassment policy in place and promptly investigate the complaint. That’s what happened in the following case.

Recent case: Sharon Amati worked for U.S. Steel and claimed that in June 2003, a co-worker entered her office, pulled up a chair, asked her to have an affair with him, pulled down his pants, exposed his private parts and asked her to perform oral sex. She refused.

Amati did not immediately complain to her employer, even though she knew the process and had been trained in U.S. Steel’s harassment policies. Instead, she waited until November to complain through the appropriate channels.

U.S. Steel immediately investigated. It met with Amati, interviewed the co-worker, followed Amati’s leads about others she thought might have been harassed and told the co-worker to have no further contact with Amati. The co-worker didn’t bother her again.

That was enough for the 3rd Circuit Court of Appeals to dismiss the sexual harassment claim Amati had filed. (Amati v. U.S. Steel, No. 07-4430, 3rd Cir., 2008)

Final note: If it has been awhile since the last time your organization conducted sexual harassment training, consider adding a refresher course this year. 

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