An employee complains that she’s being sexually harassed by her boss. HR jumps into action, the supervisor is disciplined and warned, and, after a short time, the victim tells HR things have greatly improved. But just weeks later, the employee resigns, charging that the supervisor’s gone back to his old ways. She sues for harassment. Did she win?
Read the dramatized version of this real-life case and see if you can determine the outcome.
“Phil, what’s this mess we’ve gotten into with Sarah Fordham?” asked VP Bill Kurolsky over the phone. “I don’t have to tell you how costly a lawsuit could be. What’s going on over there?”
HR manager Phil Walker sighed. “We have a supervisor who may not be, shall we say, ‘progressive’ when it comes to women,” Phil explained.
“Sarah came to us with complaints that he was being inappropriate and making her uncomfortable,” he said.
“So you were all over him, right?” Bill asked. “You know better than anyone how important a fast response is.”
“Right,” said Phil, “and we saw a fast improvement. We gave him a verbal and written warning, and we met with Sarah a few weeks later and she thanked us for intervening. She even sent us a follow-up email saying the situation was much better.”
“But then she took a leave of absence a month later?” Bill asked.
“Yes, apparently things fell apart somewhere,” said Phil. “I never heard anything more about it, so I thought everything was fine.
“Then Sarah claimed her work environment was worse than ever and that she had to quit her job.”
Sarah brought a hostile work environment and gender bias claim against her employer.
Did the company win?
No, the company lost. The court ruled that the HR department’s actions didn’t shield the employer from Sarah’s lawsuit.
The reason: HR didn’t do enough.
The judge acknowledged that the company acted quickly when Sarah expressed concern over the supervisor’s behavior. Officials even went so far as to issue both a verbal and written warning.
But then they dropped the ball.
Once HR heard the situation was better, it failed to follow up to make sure the manager didn’t slip back into his old behaviors – which, in this case, he did.
For that reason, the judge held the employer responsible for the hostile workplace that ultimately led Sarah to resign.
Analysis: One-and-done not enough
Even if your company responds quickly and appropriately to an employee’s accusations of harassment, you could still be on the hook for not going far enough.
If individual department supervisors field a complaint, remind them of the importance of repeated follow-up, even if they’ve been told the matter’s resolved. And, as always, keep a written record of any follow-up as well.
Cite: Aponte-Rivera v. DHL Solutions (U.S.A)