- A federal jury in Maryland recently concluded that a female Comcast employee was subjected to unwelcome harassment that was motivated at least in part by her sex, but that it was not sufficiently severe or pervasive to create a hostile work environment (Rhodes v. Comcast Communications Management, LLC, No. 14-cv-1824 (D. Md., Jan. 16, 2019)).
- The employee, a dispatcher, claimed that her male colleagues regularly used vulgar language, including profanity, and took smartphone photos of her breasts, according to Comcast's motion for summary. She also claimed that one of her colleagues "grabbed her breasts," though she did not immediately report this particular incident.
- When the employee complained to her supervisor about her co-workers' behavior, he allegedly responded, "What do you want me to do? They are set in their ways."
On paper, this verdict is a victory for Comcast. It's not clear precisely what evidence the jury heard, or whom they believed or didn't believe, but the dispatcher's allegations here illustrate the importance of training and investigations.
The court noted that the dispatcher alleged that she complained numerous times about her co-workers' behavior to multiple supervisors and HR. She also went on short-term disability leave due to the stress and anxiety caused by her working environment. (Comcast claimed that it was unaware of the harassment and that the disputed conduct involved only co-workers rather than supervisors.)
For HR, these allegations serve as a reminder that employee allegations must be taken seriously and investigated when warranted. Employers have a legal obligation to conduct a good-faith investigation, leading to a well-reasoned conclusion, for issues of the sort that might someday wind up in court, said Pavneet Singh Uppal and Shayna Balch, both partners at Fisher Phillips LLP, speaking recently at a Society for Human Resource Management conference. Most of the time, these investigations can be completed internally, they said.
Conflicting, he-said-she-said allegations are all but inevitable in an investigation like this. Ultimately, Singh Uppal said, HR must do what a jury does: consider both sides and come to a conclusion about who's telling the truth and who's lying. If HR determines that misconduct occurred, it must take remedial action that is reasonably calculated to both end the misconduct and send a message to the individual that he or she is not to engage in that conduct in the future, according to Singh Uppal and Balch.
Additionally, on an ongoing basis, it's crucial that all employees receive notice of the company's policies and rules, such as anti-harassment and anti-retaliation policies. These should be reviewed at least annually, according to Balch, and you must have proof that employees received the policies — such as an acknowledgement form or a sign-in sheet for in-person trainings.