October 6, 2010

Tyler Clementi suicide: lessons for HR – and for us all

Posted in Bullying, Discrimination, Harassment, Harassment, Sexual Orientation, Workplace Violence tagged , , , , , at 8:55 am by Tom Jacobson

Tyler Clementi took his own life last month. He was an 18 year old student at Rutgers University.  He was also gay, and after a sexual encounter between him and another man was secretly broadcast over the internet (allegedly by his roommate using a webcam), he jumped to his death from the George Washington Bridge.

When I read the reports of this tragedy, I was reminded of the question posted on a Society for Human Resource Management discussion forum, “Workplace bullying:  is it HR’s responsibility to control?”  That question was posted months ago, and to date it has generated well over 600 comments.

So what does the suicide of an 18 year old college freshman have to do with HR?  It’s quite simple.  Tyler Clementi is really no different than any employee who has suffered the humiliation of workplace bullying.  One does not have to dig too deep to find similar examples of disgruntled workers who have harmed — and even killed — themselves and others after being harassed, bullied or otherwise disrespected on the job.

What are the lessons for HR?  First, anti-harassment policies are critically important.  They need to clearly spell out the types of harassment that are prohibited in the workplace.

These policies also need to clearly describe how victims can report their concerns, and employees (especially supervisors and managers) need to be trained on what the policies mean and how they are to be applied.  Some reports on Tyler Clementi’s death indicate that after this sexual encounter was broadcast, he reported it to his resident assistant, but that process did not save Clementi.  Comparing this to HR, I wonder if Rutgers had told Clementi where he could go for help and whether the university had trained the RA on how to deal with Clementi’s concerns.

Surely, to allow bullying to exist in the workplace will expose any company to liability, especially it is based on an employee’s legally-protected characteristic.  But the lesson for us all is that regardless of our beliefs and attitudes about another’s lifestyle and traits, every person has a right to be treated with dignity and respect.

The comments posted in this blog are for general informational purposes only. They are not to be considered as legal advice, and they do not establish an attorney-client relationship. For legal advice regarding your specific situation, please consult your attorney.  Also, the views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson, PA.

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