- Konos, an egg producer in Michigan, will pay $175,000 in damages and attorneys' fees to settle a federal lawsuit from the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission alleging it subjected a worker to sexual harassment and retaliation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the EEOC announced May 27 (EEOC v. Konos, Inc., No. 20-973 (W.D. Mich. May 27, 2022)).
- The worker was an egg inspector at Konos's Martin facility, the lawsuit alleged. Shortly after she started, a supervisor began sending her texts soliciting an intimate relationship, court documents said. She rejected the supervisor's advances, but thereafter, he sexually assaulted her three times, forcibly kissing her, groping her and sexually touching her, according to the lawsuit. The worker reported him to the police and obtained a protection order. He pled no contest to criminal sexual misconduct.
- She also complained to Konos. In retaliation, Konos sent her home, and she never returned to work, the EEOC alleged. It sued Konos for violating Title VII by subjecting the worker to a sexually hostile work environment and retaliating against her for complaining about the supervisor's harassment. To settle the lawsuit, the company agreed to a three-year consent decree. "Konos should be commended for agreeing to compensate this employee and to take steps to ensure that employees are protected from a sexually hostile work environment in the future," EEOC trial attorney Nedra Campbell stated in the announcement. Konos did not respond to a request for a comment by press time.
There are a number of do's and don'ts when responding to a harassment complaint, experts say. The first thing employers should do is thank the complainant for bringing the concern to their attention, an employment attorney previously told HR Dive. Even if the investigation doesn't reveal harassment, employers can still be liable for retaliation. Showing the complainant that coming forward is appreciated helps curtail inferences of retaliation, the attorney said.
The next step is to determine whether a fact-finding investigation is necessary and, if it is, launch it immediately, according to EEOC guidance. A fact-finding investigation would be necessary, for example, if the alleged harasser denies the accusation, the guidance explains. It lists questions investigators can ask witnesses to suss out what happened. It also provides suggestions for resolving credibility issues when witnesses present conflicting stories.
In the meantime, employers may have to take intermediate measures to ensure no further incidents occur. Examples include separating the parties by changing their schedules or transferring the alleged harasser. But these measures shouldn't burden the complainant; that could be considered unlawful retaliation, the guidance warns.
In contrast, there are several things employers should not do in response to a harassment complaint. In particular, they shouldn't show hostility toward the person who reports the harassment or files a complaint, or allow any other employee or manager to do so. They also shouldn't ignore the complaint. In March, the EEOC sued a restaurant chain for allegedly doing both. The law requires employers to investigate and address complaints of workplace harassment, and the restaurant chain's alleged inaction violated Title VII, the agency said.
Employers should also avoid gender stereotyping harassment victims, according to a study published in January. Doing so can undermine an investigation into the alleged harassment, the study found. Based on the research, a sexual harassment claim was considered less credible and less psychologically harmful when the victim "did not act according to the stereotype of a typical woman," one of the co-authors stated.
Similarly, if the alleged harasser is someone with power over the victim, like a supervisor or manager, employers should look at the power through the victim's eyes, the attorney said. Front-line managers have the power to make someone's life miserable, and a low-level employee may be more trapped than someone in a higher-level position, the attorney explained.
In the Konos case, the costs went beyond monetary damages. Besides the $175,000, Konos must provide training on sexual harassment and retaliation to all employees, including managers, supervisors, officers and directors, within 60 days of the consent decree. In addition, within 10 days of receiving a complaint about sexually inappropriate conduct, Konos must report the complaint, the steps it took to investigate the complaint and the investigation's results to the EEOC.
Also, for the length of the consent decree, the EEOC can enter and inspect Konos's premises during regular business hours. If a court finds Konos hasn't complied with the decree, it can order Konos to pay $750 per day until the company is in compliance.