Sex, Lies and Liability

By McClain, Eddy L. | Security Management, March 1997 | Go to article overview

Sex, Lies and Liability


McClain, Eddy L., Security Management


After working for two years as a systems analyst, Christine was excited when she was transferred to the company's marketing division, a position she had been hoping to get for several months. Within a few weeks, though, the excitement wore off, and Christine found herself fending off an aggressive supervisor who began making stronger and stronger sexual advances toward her.

The problem started small enough. Stephen would call Christine into his office each Monday morning and press her for details about how she spent the weekend. Although Christine told him that she didn't like to discuss her personal life at work, Stephen's questions continued. After a few weeks, Stephen asked Christine if she'd join him for a drink after work. When she declined, he asked her again, telling her they'd work better together if she would loosen up and learn more about him. The problem culminated one day when Stephen suggested that they check into a hotel and have sex. Christine told Stephen that the conversation was inappropriate and made her uncomfortable. But he persisted.

After several weeks of turning down Stephen's propositions, Christine went to Anthony, Stephen's supervisor, to complain. Anthony told Christine not to overreact. "He'd have to be crazy not to want to sleep with you," Anthony told her, adding that she should lighten up and understand that Stephen was just acting the way any man in his situation would.

Angry and humiliated, Christine finally appealed to the company president - but to no avail. While the president called a meeting with Christine, Stephen, and Anthony, he never discussed sexual harassment or Christine's charges. Instead, he spoke about the importance of teamwork. The problems continued, and Christine soon had little choice but to either leave her job or fight the harassment in court. She chose to file a lawsuit.

Sexual harassment is an ongoing problem in the workplace that continues to expose companies to uninsured loss. In 1995, 15,549 sexual harassment claims were filed with the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC). From that caseload, the agency obtained a total of $24.3 million for claimants - and that covers only cases settled without going to court.

Federal statutes and many state laws require employers to investigate allegations of sexual harassment and take appropriate actions to remedy the problem. Despite increased awareness over the years, many corporate executives and security professionals do not know how to respond to sensitive complaints like the case cited above - a composite of real-life examples.

The cost of ignoring a complaint can be enormous. But by effectively investigating sexual harassment claims, a company can shield itself from liability. Several federal courts have recently held that employers who thoroughly investigated complaints of sexual harassment and took appropriate immediate remedial action were not liable under federal law for the acts alleged by their employees.

For example, in 1995 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit found that the Culligan International Company was not liable for a supervisor's harassing conduct (Baskerville v. Culligan Int'l Co.) because the employer had investigated and remedied the conduct when it was first reported. The company had confronted the supervisor, warned him to stop, and even withheld his salary increase after one of his employees alleged that he had harassed her by calling her a "pretty girl," making grunting noises when she wore a leather skirt to work, and making other offensive sexist remarks.

However, a mere investigation, even if thorough, will not shield the employer from liability if corrective action should be taken, but is not. Moreover, any corrective action must be effective. Federal courts have held that corrective actions taken against a harasser - such as investigating complaints, counseling the harasser, and transferring the complainant to a different position - were insufficient under federal law because the measures were not "reasonably calculated" to end the harassment of the victimized employee, and did not in fact end the harassment. …

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