Wednesday, March 26, 2014

"Motorboating" = $567K harassment verdict

A Galveston, Texas, jury has awarded $567,000 in damages to a former deputy constable who claimed sexual harassment by his former boss. The catch is that the harasser is female and the victim is male.

James Gist claimed that his former boss, Pam Matranga, gave him unwanted lap dances and forced him to “motorboat” her by placing her shirt over his head and holding his face against her breasts.

For her part, Matranga did not deny that she let employees put their heads under her shirt. The Daily Mail quotes her testimony: “If anybody was in a bad mood, like if Phil was in a bad mood, I would say, ‘Phil,’ or to anyone, ‘Do you need to go under the shirt?’ She also claimed, however, that she never asked Gist to go “under the shirt” because he thought it was “creepy.” Clearly, the jury did not believe her.

This case illustrates two important points:
  1. Harassment is harassment, whether its a male-on-female, or female-on-male. As long as the harassment is “because of sex,” it’s illegal. Employers that ignore a female harassing a male employee, or don’t take it seriously because “men can handle it,” do so at their own risk. 
  2. When complaining of harassment, it can be enough for an employee to complain to the manager/harasser. In this case, one of the employer’s chief defenses is that Gist never complained to management. Gist admitted that he did not complain because he feared retaliation, but that he did tell Matranga that her behavior made him uncomfortable and for her to stop. The court found that sufficient. As Eric Meyer recently pointed out on his Employer Handbook blog, an employee whose only complaint to management about harassment is to the harasser himself (or herself) may be enough to satisfy the employee’s required internal complaint.  If complaining to the harasser is sufficient, employers need to be extra vigilant in spotting harassment, and stepping in each time something seems amiss in the workplace, with or without the receipt of a complaint.