Thursday, June 4, 2009

3 lessons in handling workplace harassment

Gallagher v. C.H. Robinson Worldwide (6th Cir. 5/22/09) [PDF] offers an excellent example of how businesses get themselves into trouble by failing to actively and effectively police workplace offensive conduct.

Julie Gallagher began working at C.H. Robinson Worldwide, a Cleveland trucking company, in September 2002. She held an office job at CHR, working with two dozen other employees in a relatively small office. She quit CHR after only four months. In the interim, she claims that she was subjected to repeated sex-based harassment and offensive conduct, including:

  • The prevalent use of foul language by mostly male coworkers who openly and loudly referred to female customers, truck drivers, coworkers and others as bitches, whores, sluts, dykes and cunts.
  • The frequent display of pornographic websites and magazines.
  • Co-workers who shared nude pictures of their girlfriends in different sexual poses.
  • Male co-workers who daily traded sexual jokes and engaged in graphic discussions about their sexual liaisons, fantasies, and preferences.
  • One co-worker angrily called her a “bitch” on several occasions.
  • Male co-workers called her fat, a “heifer” with “milking udders,” and “moo”ed at her. 

Gallagher admitted that she did not avail herself of CHR’s formal harassment policy and complaint mechanism, but did sometimes complain to the branch manager, Greg Quast, to no avail.

The trial court granted CHR’s summary judgment motion and dismissed Gallagher’s case. The 6th Circuit, however, reversed and sent the case back for trial. Why? And what can employers learn from this case?

  1. Offensive conduct can be “based on sex” whether or not it is directed at a woman. In this case, most of the complained of harassment was not directed at Gallagher, but was explicitly sexual and degrading of women in general. Such conduct is actionable whether or not the complaining employee is specifically targeted. The lesson: Employers should not ignore harassment complaints just because the complaining employee was only subjected to general workplace misconduct.

  2. A jury could conclude that the harassment was severe and pervasive: “Considering the totality of the circumstances …, the conclusion is inescapable that a reasonable person could have found the Cleveland office—permeated with vulgar language, demeaning conversations and images, and palpable anti-female animus—objectively hostile.” The lesson: Businesses are not fraternity houses, and employers that allow frat-like antics to permeate the workplace will often find themselves on the losing end of a harassment lawsuit.

  3. The branch manager should have taken greater steps to correct or remedy the harassment: “It is true that Gallagher did not report all of her concerns to Quast and did not necessarily characterize all of her complaints as sexual harassment complaints. Still, when the conduct Gallagher did report to Quast is considered alongside the pervasive conduct Quast himself witnessed, it can hardly be denied that there is a genuine fact issue as to what Quast, and therefore C.H. Robinson, knew or should have known.” The lesson: Once management knows or should know of inappropriate conduct (whether by a complaint or otherwise), it cannot borough its head in the sand, but must undertake a reasonable investigation and implement prompt remediation if warranted.

Presented by Kohrman Jackson & Krantz, with offices in Cleveland and Columbus.

For more information, contact Jon Hyman, a partner in our Labor & Employment group, at (216) 736-7226 or