When an employee is harassed at work, it can lead to all sorts of legal trouble for employers. Companies can be held liable, particularly if the employee proves they experienced a hostile work environment.
But a recent court decision shows how thorough investigations and quick intervention can stop employee lawsuits in their tracks.
Jokes about illness
Shannon Warren-Higgins, who had diabetes, worked at a patient call center for Indiana University Health. Allegedly, her supervisor made many demeaning comments to Warren-Higgins about her illness. She claimed the supervisor joked about her allergy to certain medications, and would often dig through her lunch and make fun of her food choices. He also would mock her while speaking to her colleagues.
Warren-Higgins went to HR and filed a complaint against the supervisor. Within a week, HR had interviewed both the supervisor and other witnesses to the behavior. The harassment stopped afterward.
However, Warren-Higgins still filed a lawsuit, claiming the harassment violated the ADA and created a hostile work environment. But the 7th Circuit ruled in favor of the company.
Promptly corrected behavior
The court said an employer is only liable for a hostile work environment if it let the harassment happen and didn’t intervene. Indiana University Health “promptly corrected the behavior,” and the harassment ended. Because the employer’s methods were both quick and effective, the company was not liable.
This case acts as an excellent reminder that quick intervention in harassment claims is crucial in fighting these lawsuits. If an HR department makes a good-faith effort to stop the harassment, that’s often enough to avoid liability.
Cite: Warren-Higgins v. Indiana University Health, 10/7/21.