Human Resources News & Insights

Harassment: Dealing with one incident isn’t sufficient to solve hostile workplace

A recent court ruling makes it clear: If you’re trying to rid yourself of the disease of workplace harassment, you can’t just treat the symptoms. You need to find the cure.

That’s the lesson from a recent federal lawsuit in New York state, in which a jury awarded $275,000 to a woman who’d been victimized by a hostile work environment.

The case involved Lisa Fisher, a health aide at the Mermaid Manor Home for Adults. She is black.

There was hostility between black employees from the United States and black workers whose origins were Caribbean or West Indian. The Caribbean employees were referred to as “the coconuts” by some employees.

Two of the so-called “coconuts” — Yvonne Kelly, whose origins were Jamaican and Lisi Laurent, from Haiti — allegedly posted a photo on Instagram portraying Fisher as a fictional chimpanzee from the movie “Planet of the Apes.” Fisher complained to management, which took disciplinary action against Kelly and Laurent.

‘Continuous and unrelenting’

But the problem didn’t go away. The harassment continued, according to court records: Kelly proceeded “to ridicule [Fisher] continuously and unrelentingly.”

Among other acts of harassment, the court said, Kelly ripped up Fisher’s patient book, destroyed the beds of Fisher’s patients, swung her arms in an attempt to strike Fisher in a hallway and once, seeing Fisher in a room, said loudly, “Do you smell that?”

Although Fisher continued to complain about the conduct, Mermaid Manor Manor “took no meaningful action to protect [her] and to rectify the hostile work environment that resulted from Ms. Kelly’s unceasing harassment,” the court found.

Fisher filed a complaint with the EEOC and later sued in federal court. Following a trial, a jury awarded Fisher $25,000 in actual damages and $250,000 in punitive damages. “(Mermaid Manor), despite having actual knowledge of these numerous incidents, took no meaningful action to protect (Fisher) and to rectify the hostile work environment that resulted from Ms. Kelly’s unceasing harassment,” the judge wrote.

The one bright spot for Mermaid Manor (dim though it may be) is that the court lowered the punitive damages to $50,000. “While (Mermaid) acted reprehensibly, the disparity between the compensatory damages and punitive damages … is inappropriate,” the judge wrote.

The take-away from this case is pretty clear: Acting on a single incident of harassment just doesn’t cut it if the pattern of harassment is allowed to continue. Employers have to remain vigilant that a hostile work environment won’t be tolerated — and take action to make sure the unacceptable conduct stops.

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