WHAT TO DO WHEN YOU RECEIVE A HARASSMENT OR DISCRIMINATION COMPLAINT

“If mistakes happen, effective leaders don’t place blame on others. They take ownership of the mistakes, determine what went wrong, develop solutions to correct those mistakes and prevent them from happening again as they move forward.”

Jocko Willink, The Dichotomy of Leadership: Balancing the Challenges of Extreme Ownership to Lead and Win

Observing others’ successes and failures is a good way to learn.  However, the primary way we learn is through our daily “self-experiments.”   Example:  you come home tired after work and ignore your spouse.  It does not go well.     If you are smart you adapt: exhausted or not, you pay attention. 

Our work lives are no different.  Eyes focused on serving clients and positive balance sheets, it is easy to develop bad habits elsewhere.  Ignoring employee problems is one such mistake.  You can take a small, easily solvable problem and turn it into a lawsuit.

At some point in life most women encounter the man who cannot take no for an answer.  In the workplace, this causes various problems.   If management does not step in and solve the problem, the company may end up owning it. This article provides guidance for employers looking to solve, not own, sexual harassment problems.

Last week a federal court provided guidance for employers eager to know what to do when faced with complaints of harassment or discrimination.  Many of you, particularly women, will quickly recognize the fact pattern in Holland v. NTP Marble

HOW MANY TIMES CAN SOMEONE ASK A WOMAN OUT ON A DATE BEFORE IT BECOMES HARASSMENT?      

Robin Holland alleged that that Chris Bekas pursued her by repeatedly asking her out and contacting her via text messages. Bekas admitted that he exchanged personal text messages with Holland three to four times a week wherein they generally discussed if they could meet up, but Holland usually said that she was busy. Bekas asked Holland to go to dinner with him three or four times before she accepted his invitation.

Bekas testified that he thought Holland was interested in him because she walked by his office and smiled, and because they had gone on a date. Bekas further stated that he was interested in a sexual relationship with Holland.

Holland claimed that Bekas’ harassment culminated when he touched her inappropriately while in the back construction area at work. Holland told another employee about the incident. Holland  alleged that the employee responded “this isn’t the first time that this, quote, creep has done this.” The employee told Holland, who was reluctant to come forward and make a complaint, that she would report the allegation to management if Holland did not. Holland then went ahead and reported the incident management by sending an email to company’s Chief Operating Officer. 

Does this sound familiar so far?  I thought so.  What came next determined whether the company was held liable for Bekas’ alleged conduct.  Here is what happened:

  • Bekas was immediately suspended and required to leave the building. 
  • Bekas had no further communication or contact with Holland, and no further incidents occurred.
  • The CFO talked to Holland on the phone about the “details, exactly what happened … exactly where she was … harassed and touched in an inappropriate manner” and asked for a formal statement.
  • Bekas spoke at length about the allegations to an outside attorney hired by the company to help investigate the allegations.
  • The CFO also interviewed the employee Holland had initially spoken to.
  • However, the company had never given sexual harassment training to Bekas and its CFO admitted that “If we had stronger policies — had we had been — there be, you know, no contact, you know, they’re lackadaisy [sic.] as far as making specific policies and really lackadaisy [sic.] at enforcing them. So, you know, nobody was even supposed to be in the service department. Nobody’s even supposed to be using these doors. Had we, as a company, said that nobody should be back in the construction area alone, because nobody should be back there alone. So, you know, nobody would be in this position today.  I don’t think anybody should have been allowed in that back area alone.

HERE IS THE LEGAL TEST YOUR COMPANY MUST PASS

Do you think the company was held liable?  Here is the legal test for employer liability — apply it to the facts and test your knowledge:

An employer’s liability for a hostile work environment claim depends on whether the harasser is the victim’s supervisor or merely a co-worker. When a harasser is a co-worker or other non-supervisor, employer liability attaches only if (a) the employer failed to provide a reasonable avenue for complaint or (b) the employer knew or should have known of the harassment and failed to take prompt and appropriate remedial action.  An employer’s remedial action is adequate if it is reasonably calculated to prevent further harassment.

The mere fact that the harassment fortuitously stops does not demonstrate that the employer acted reasonably.  An investigation must be undertaken, and an employer can be held liable if a faulty investigation renders its subsequent remedial action inadequate, i.e., not reasonably calculated to prevent further harassment.  However, if the remedy chosen by the employer is adequate, an aggrieved employee cannot object to that selected action. An employee cannot dictate that the employer select a certain remedial action.

Applying this test, the court ruled in favor of the company.  While it could have done things better, the company had an anti-harassment policy and complaint procedure in place and took proper remedial action upon learning of the alleged harassment. 

Note:  the company won the case despite evidence that Bekas had several incidents with other females.  One testified that he asked her out on dates multiple times, “constantly approached her during breaks, and she found him to be “creepy and weird.” A male employee stated that he had witnessed Bekas offer himself to several female co-workers and make inappropriate comments to female employees. And, Bekas was reprimanded on one occasion for calling a customer to ask her out on a date.  However, management had never learned of these incidents until after Holland had complained; so the company was not liable for Bekas’ conduct.

In finding for the company, the Holland court contrasted a prior case where an employer had not acted promptly or properly:  it forced a woman to speak to five different supervisors to elicit any response from management; management took five months between her complaint and a response; and management’s only instruction to the alleged harasser was a one-page memo two months after the last incident of harassment.  Do not be “that” employer.

Harassment and discrimination complaints are a gift.  They afford businesses the opportunity to address and resolve festering problems. Some companies. however, squander this gift.  These companies get punished twice — first because the problem continues and next when they find themselves on the receiving end of an EEOC investigation or lawsuit.

By failing to prepare, you prepare to fail.  Have procedures to handle harassment and discrimination complaints.  Then, when you receive a complaint you will know what to do and you will do it. 

REVERSAL:  It is not always proper to immediately suspend or discipline an alleged harasser before learning all the facts; doing so could expose your company to liability to the alleged harasser.  Seek legal counsel when in doubt.

Art Bourque is an AV rated commercial and employment lawyer who has been practicing law in Phoenix, Arizona for 28 years.  Art provides employment law training to help businesses operate efficiently and avoid mistakes; conducts sexual harassment and other investigations; and is an experienced litigator.  Art can be found at www.bourquelaw.com, art@bourquelaw.com, 602.559.9550, linkedin, or trail running with his dog, Eli.

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