January 12, 2012

Federal court reaffirms importance of harassment policies

Posted in Color, Disability, Discrimination, Employee Handbooks, Gender / Sex, Genetic Information, Harassment, Harassment, Marital Status, National Origin, Race, Religion, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Harassment, Sexual Orientation tagged , , , , , , , , , at 11:07 am by Tom Jacobson

I am often asked if employers must have a written policy prohibiting sexual and other forms of unlawful harassment. The short answer is no, for there is no statute, regulation or court decision mandating such policies. However, and it is a big however, implementing such policies is clearly the best practice. And, as reaffirmed by the United States Eighth Circuit Court of Appeals on January 11, 2012, having a written policy can be the key to successfully defending harassment charges.

The case is Crawford v. BNSF Railway Co. In this case, BNSF had a “zero tolerance” policy on workplace harassment. Among other things, the policy defined the prohibited conduct, instructed employees to report complaints through one of five channels (one of which was an anonymous employee hotline), explained that  allegations would be investigated “promptly, impartially, and confidentially,” included guidelines explaining the ranges of discipline BNSF might apply to offenders, and contained a provision prohibiting retaliation for reporting discrimination. BNSF also trained employees on how to report harassment.

In this case, five employees alleged that they were victims of unlawful harassment by their supervisor. Specifically, they claimed that their supervisor engaged in a long litany of inappropriate behaviors ranging from fondling and sexual comments to requests for sexual favors, mimicked sex acts, and racial slurs.

Eight months after the alleged harassment began, the employees filed discrimination charges with the Nebraska Equal Opportunity Commission (NEOC) and the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).  One of the employees then reported the harassment directly to BNSF. BNSF conducted an investigation, which included interviewing four of the plaintiffs. Within two days, BNSF placed the supervisor on administrative leave. After completing its investigation less than two weeks later, BNSF informed the supervisor that he was being terminated, and the supervisor then chose to resign.

The general rule in such cases is that an employer is liable for the unlawful harassment committed by its supervisors unless it can show that: (a) it exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior; and (b) the employee unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer or to avoid harm.

Noting the existence of BNSF’s zero tolerance policy and its swift action after receiving the employees’ complaint, the court concluded that BNSF had exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly any sexually harassing behavior. Then, noting that the employees had not availed themselves of BNSF’s complaint procedure, the court also ruled that they had  unreasonably failed to take advantage of any preventive or corrective opportunities provided by the employer. Accordingly, the court held that it was appropriate to dismiss the employees’ claims. Importantly, the court stressed that “‘distribution of a valid antiharassment policy provides compelling proof’ that an employer exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly harassing behavior.

Thus, the Crawford v BNSF case clearly illustrates that the best practice for employers is to implement and distribute harassment policies, for without them, employers will find it extremely difficult, if not impossible, to defend claims on the basis that they exercised reasonable care to prevent and correct promptly harassment.

For more information about this article, please contact me at taj@alexandriamnlaw.com.

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.

Copyright 2011 Swenson Lervick Syverson Trosvig Jacobson Schultz, PA

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