Employer brushed off sexual harassment as 'playful,' pays $150K to settle claim
- HELP USA Inc. has agreed to pay $150,000 to settle a lawsuit by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC), which alleged that the housing support services provider violated federal law by allowing the sexual harassment of female employees. HELP USA agreed to distribute anti-discrimination policies to employees, provide training to all employees working at the location involved in the suit and instruct them to report all employee discrimination complaints under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 to the EEOC, the agency announced in a press release.
- A supervisor at the company's Bronx office routinely subjected women to verbal abuse, unwelcome sexual advances and sexually offensive statements, the EEOC said, and "ogled women in the workplace." Repeated complaints from one employee about the conduct were overlooked for months, and in one instance, a supervisor told the worker the offender was just being "playful," the EEOC said.
- "Such conduct violates Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discrimination – including harassment – because of sex," the EEOC wrote in its statement.
Rather than ignore or excuse a manager's comments, Jonathan Segal, a partner and managing principal at Duane Morris, has suggested that managers and supervisors be trained to thank employees for coming forward, assure the employee making the complaint that their concerns are taken seriously, explain the process that will follow and then thank the employee again at the end of the conversation.
Employers can better protect themselves and earn employees' trust when they have a workplace investigations policy in place, though not every complaint needs to be investigated. When an employee makes a complaint, HR must consider whether an investigation should take place, Pavneet Singh Uppal and Shayna Balch, partners at Fisher Phillips LLP, said at last year's Society for Human Resource Management's annual conference. Situations not meriting an internal investigation could include instances when an employee feels slighted because they are left out of lunch plans; although, if business is conducted during such get-togethers, then complaints need to be taken seriously, Singh Uppal said.
While a law firm should be brought in to conduct investigations in situations where someone in HR or an executive is accused of misconduct, HR can conduct the investigation in most cases, Singh Uppal said. No matter who conducts the investigation, the process must be done in "good faith" and the conclusion reached must be "well-reasoned" to stand up in court, he said.