Wednesday, September 8, 2010

EEOC settlement provides really good practice points for combating harassment

Last week, the EEOC announced the settlement of the sexual harassment claims of 21 female janitorial workers against their employer, ABM Industries. The allegations were pretty horrific:

The EEOC asserted that the 21 class members were victims of varying degrees of unwelcome touching, explicit sexual comments and requests for sex by 14 male co-workers and supervisors, one of whom was a registered sex offender. Some of the harassers allegedly often exposed themselves, groped female employees’ private parts from behind, and even raped at least one of the victims, the EEOC said.

Worse yet, the lawsuit “charged that ABM failed to respond to the employees’ repeated complaints of harassment.” According to the EEOC, “Employers must implement strict policies and procedures to safeguard against such harassment, and take employee complaints seriously so that they not rise to the level of severity we saw in this case.”

The employer agreed to pay the class $5.8M, in addition to changes in how it handles workplace harassment. The agreed-to policy changes offer all employers some good lessons in how to proactively handle harassment:

  • Designate an outside equal employment opportunity monitor to ensure the effectiveness of investigations, complaint policies and procedures, and assist in anti-harassment training to employees.
  • Ensure that investigators of harassment complaints are trained thoroughly to investigate internal complaints of discrimination, harassment and retaliation 
  • Establish a toll-free telephone hotline to receive complaints of harassment and retaliation.
  • Provide anti-harassment training to employees in both English and Spanish to include a video message from the chief executive officer emphasizing zero tolerance for harassment and retaliation. 
  • Conduct internal compliance audits at worksites.

Depending on the size of your organization, these specifics may not make sense. All businesses, though, should take the general lesson to heart. An anti-harassment policy is not worth the paper it’s printed on unless the company has a culture that not only abhors harassment, but takes all complaints seriously. Taking complaints seriously includes ensuring that all employees (no matter their native language or level of education) understand the harassment policy, that employees have more than one avenue to make complaints, that investigators are properly trained, and that the company regularly reviews its policies and procedures for compliance and effectiveness. No anti-harassment program is perfect, but designing one around these guidelines will greatly help in keeping you away from multi-million dollar lawsuits.

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