- A career firefighter with 20 years of service to Fort Worth, Texas, has sued the city and several of her former co-workers and supervisors alleging sexual harassment so severe that she says she was subjected to sexual harassment and "forced to medically retire at a fraction of the pension she had worked over 20 years to obtain" (Female Firefighter Jane Doe v. Fort Worth, Texas et. al, No. 19-cv-01001 (N.D. Texas Nov. 11, 2019)).
- In court papers, the plaintiff referred to as Jane Doe said she "became the object of ongoing sexual harassment," which included unwelcome sexual advances, "sexually charged messages" sent by male co-workers, instances of non-consensual sex and being slapped on the buttocks by a co-worker in front of her 8-year-old daughter at work. Though the plaintiff reported the misconduct, leadership "chose to sweep [her complaints] under the rug without disciplinary actions taken against the offenders." Doe also said that when her harassers were not disciplined, their behavior grew worse. Doe alleged she was transferred on several occasions in retaliation for her complaints.
- Doe said her epilepsy worsened because of the stress she experienced, forcing her to medically retire.
Employers are "automatically liable for harassment by a supervisor that results in a negative employment action such as termination or loss of wages," according to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).
Generally, to avoid liability in instances in which a supervisor's harassment causes a hostile work environment, the employer must prove that it tried to prevent and promptly correct the harassing behavior and that the employee failed to take advantage of the preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. In a recent opinion, the court said the employer was not liable for the harassment alleged by three truck drivers even though they had presented extensive evidence of a hostile work environment created by co-workers because the employer took prompt remedial action that was sufficiently calculated to stop the harassment. When harassment was reported, the employer tried, within 24 hours, to separate the complainant from the accused driver and took a number of other actions to resolve the problem.
An employer can also be liable for harassment by non-supervisory employees or non-employees over whom it has control, such as independent contractors, if the employer knows or should have known about the harassment and failed to take prompt corrective action, EEOC says in its guidance.
HR should create a reporting procedure for harassment and discrimination that starts with taking all complaints seriously regardless of whether the alleged harassment is at the hands of a supervisor or co-worker, and make sure that complaints are promptly investigated, experts previously told HR Dive.
Compliance training is also important in preventing discrimination and harassment claims. Employers should conduct harassment training at least once a year, with separate sessions for managers and employees, according to Robin Shea of Constangy Brooks, Smith & Prophete.