Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Employers cannot “ostrich” harassment allegations

ldiwl5kaBy now, you’ve likely read or heard about the disturbing sexual abuse scandal involving Jerry Sandusky, Penn State’s former defensive coordinator, and the decades-long cover-up perpetrated by the university to protect its storied football program. Of all of the allegations, however, the following, culled from a report in the New York Times, resonated with me as the teachable lesson for employers:

The chronology of events laid out by the state attorney general’s office includes multiple episodes that seem to suggest a failure by a variety of Penn State officials or employees to act emphatically— whether out of fear, incompetence or, perhaps, self-interest….

“The failure of top university officials to act on reports of Sandusky’s alleged sexual misconduct, even after it was reported to them in graphic detail by an eyewitness, allowed a predator to walk free for years—continuing to target new victims,” Linda Kelly, the state attorney general, said in a statement over the weekend. “Equally disturbing is the lack of action and apparent lack of concern among those same officials, and others who received information about this case, who either avoided asking difficult questions or chose to look the other way.”

If you take nothing else away from this horrible story, let it be this point: under no circumstances can you, as an employer, ignore harassment that you know about or should know about. It is not a defense for you to bury your organizational head in the sand and hope that it will all be gone when you emerge into the sunlight. If opt for the “ostrich,” all you will see after shaking the sand off your face is an expensive (and indefensible?) harassment lawsuit.