Tuesday, May 6, 2008

Best of -- A Whopper of a Sex Harassment Claim

One of the surest ways for a company to guard against harassment lawsuits is to have in place a reasonable mechanism by which a victim of harassment can complain to the company. In today's workplace, one would be hard pressed to find a company that does not have a harassment policy, either in its employee handbook or otherwise. It is not enough, however, merely to have complaint procedures in place. Those procedures much be understandable, workable, and meaningful for them to provide any protection to an employer. EEOC v. V & J Foods, out of the 7th Circuit, illustrates the important distinction between a complaint procedure that is or is not meaningful, and the consequences that can befall an employer with an unworkable system.

Samekiea Merriweather, 16 years old, worked after school and on weekends at a Burger King restaurant. It was her first paying job. Unfortunately for her, her boss and the store's general manager, Tony Wilkins, had a propensity of sleeping with his female employees. He rubbed up against her, tried to kiss her, told her he wanted a "young girl" because of "their body. You know, it's not all used up." He offered $600 to have sex with him in a hotel room," and when she refused and told him she had a boyfriend, he told her he wasn't going to do anything else for her because she was giving her body away for free instead of selling it to him. Samekiea, both on her own and through her mother, repeatedly complained of the harassment to her shift supervisors and the assistant manager, who essentially ignored her. Shortly after Samekiea turned down Wilkins's offer to pay her for sex, he became hostile towards her and fired her.

Instead of summarizing the Court, I'll merely quote from the well written opinion of Judge Posner:

[A]n employer can avoid liability under Title VII for harassment (on a ground, such as sex, that constitutes a form of discrimination that the statute forbids) of one of his employees by another by creating a reasonable mechanism by which the victim of the harassment can complain to the company and get relief but which the victim failed to activate....

The mechanism must be reasonable and what is reasonable depends on “the employment circumstances,” ... and therefore, among other things, on the capabilities of the class of employees in question. If they cannot speak English, explaining the complaint procedure to them only in English would not be reasonable. In this case the employees who needed to be able to activate the complaint procedure were teenage girls working in a small retail outlet....

An employer is not required to tailor its complaint procedures to the competence of each individual employee. But it is part of V & J’s business plan to employ teenagers, part-time workers often working for the first time. Knowing that it has many teenage employees, the company was obligated to suit its procedures to the understanding of the average teenager....

Ignoring this point, the company adopted complaint procedures likely to confuse even adult employees. The employee handbook that new employees are given has a brief section on harassment and states that complaints should be lodged with the “district manager.” Who this functionary is and how to communicate with him is not explained. The list of corporate officers and managers at the beginning of the handbook does not list a “district manager,” or for that matter a “general manager,” but instead a “restaurant manager”; and there is evidence that employees confuse “district manager” with “restaurant [or general] manager” — that is, Wilkins, the harasser. There is a phone number on the cover of the handbook, and if you call it you get a receptionist or a recorded message at V & J’s headquarters. But an employee would not know whom to ask for at headquarters because she is not told who her district manager is or the district of the restaurant at which she works.

If an employee complains to a shift supervisor or assistant manager, that person is supposed to forward the complaint to the general manager (and thus in this case to Wilkins) even if the complaint is about the general manager. After receiving the complaint the general manager is supposed to “turn himself in,” which of course Wilkins did not do. Nor did the shift supervisors or assistant manager report Merriweather’s complaints to Wilkins or to anyone else. A policy against harassment that includes no assurance that a harassing supervisor can be bypassed in the complaint process is unreasonable as a matter of law….

An unreasonably costly complaint mechanism would not be reasonable. But it would cost very little, certainly for a company of V & J’s size, to create a clear path for complaints of harassment and other forms of illegal discrimination.... All that it would have to do, we should think, would be to post in the employees’ room (thus not visible to the restaurant’s customers) a brief notice that an employee who has a complaint about sexual harassment or other misconduct can call a toll-free number specified in the notice. The number would ring in the office of a human relations employee and the receptionist would identify the office as that of the company’s human relations department....

Because of the ineffective complaint procedure, Merriweather’s lawsuit was reinstated.

There are several lessons to be learned in the drafting and enforcement of an effective harassment complaint procedure:

  1. Comprehension. It must relate to and be understandable by the employees who are going to rely upon it. It cannot be written in legalese or jargon. If your workforce is multi-lingual, so should the harassment policy.
  2. Confidentiality. It must not only explain to whom complaints can be made, but how to confidentially contact those people.
  3. Options. It must provide optional avenues for complaints that guard against an employee being faced with the Hobson's Choice of staying silent or complaining to the harasser. In Judge Posner's cautionary words: "A policy against harassment that includes no assurance that a harassing supervisor can be bypassed in the complaint process is unreasonable as a matter of law."
  4. Policing. It should mandate that supervisors or managers report to senior management and/or human resources any complaints they receive or any conduct they perceive that may be a violation of the harassment policy.
  5. Publication. It must be disseminated to the employees, should be conspicuously posted in the workplace, and the workforce should receive periodic training on the policy and complaint procedures.

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