Hey, boss, call HR! Warn managers: Don’t fix complaints informally

June 7, 2011
in Employment Law

Sometimes, managers and supervisors just want their employees to get along and get their work done.

When they hear someone complaining about sexual or other harassment, they may be tempted to blow it off as a distraction or tell the co-workers involved to stop it.

That’s not good enough.

To prevent a successful employee lawsuit, you must impress on first-line supervisors and managers that it’s their responsibility to report any sexual harassment complaint to HR or other appropriate company official. Make that an essential requirement of their jobs, and include compliance in their evaluation criteria.

Recent case: Candy Pellegrini worked at the front desk at a Best Western Hotel in Albany. She began complaining about a new co-worker’s sexually aggressive behavior shortly after he was hired. She told supervisors that he made lewd comments about her breasts and body and grabbed her. He also allegedly called her frequently, soliciting sexual favors and complained when she spoke with her boyfriend. She also said she was forcibly kissed several times.

Each time she complained, her supervisor spoke with the co-worker. Each time, the man denied doing anything wrong.

Finally, a manager asked Pellegrini to provide a written statement of her allegations, which she did. Shortly after, the hotel fired Pellegrini, allegedly for poor performance. That’s when Pellegrini sued.

The hotel argued that even if what Pellegrini claimed was true, the conduct wasn’t severe enough to constitute sexual harassment.

The court disagreed, noting that the hotel hadn’t done anything substantial to actually investigate the problem. Merely accepting a co-worker’s denial that he didn’t do anything wrong isn’t enough.

At a minimum, the hotel should have conducted an independent investigation. (Pellegrini v. Sovereign Hotels, et al., No. 1:08-CV-1012, ND NY, 2010)

Online resource: For tips on sorting out confusing he said/she said employee harassment disputes, access our free white paper, Investigating Harassment: How to Determine Credibility.

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