Category Archives: Sexual Harassment

Scope of Relief in Sexual Harassment Cases, Quirky Question # 67

Quirky Question # 67:

We have a sexual harassment problem at our company.  I’ll spare you the grim details but let’s just say it’s an ugly situation, involving several members of management.  No physical contact or assaultive behavior but some widespread hostile environment issues.  Among other behaviors, for example, our managers apparently thought it perfectly appropriate to entertain clients at strip joints.  I’m trying to get my hands around the situation so I can report to our executive team.  Can you give me any sense of the risks we confront so I can provide our executives with a realistic appraisal of the situation? Answer→

Punitive Damages for Sexual Harassment, Quirky Question # 56

Quirky Question # 56:

Our company is committed to eliminating sexual harassment.  We have a well-defined sexual harassment policy that is included in our employee handbook.  We also have conducted training sessions on a bi-annual basis to ensure our employees understand our company’s position on sexual harassment.

Some time ago, one of our employees complained of sexual harassment.  For various reasons (including the timing of her complaint, our company’s hectic schedule at the time, and her lack of persistence), her complaint fell through the cracks.  She now has sued our company and included a claim for punitive damages.  Given our commitment to eliminating sexual harassment (as reflected by our well-established policy), we do not have any risk of a punitive damages award, do we? Answer→

Sexual Harassment — Activities Outside the Workplace, Quirky Question # 32

Quirky Question # 32:

I am an attorney in the Law Department of an advertising agency.  I recently learned in a roundabout way that one of our female employees is a motorcycle enthusiast.  For the last few years, she has taken time off from work to attend the motorcycle rally in Sturgis, South Dakota.  This year, someone at work was surfing the Web and looked at various Sturgis websites.  (I’ve since learned that there are more than 1000 Sturgis websites, many of which contain photos.)  Our employee was pictured in photos on a number of the Sturgis websites and in many of them she is not wearing much (if any) clothing.  Some of the photos are quite suggestive.

One of our employees downloaded several of the photos and circulated them via email to other employees in our office.  One employee is using one of the pics as the “wallpaper” on his computer.  A number of our employees have been asking our Sturgis enthusiast about her experience and what “really goes on at Sturgis,”  Not all of the questions are in good taste.  Other employees (mostly, but not exclusively, male) have been teasing our employee quite a bit (sometimes crudely) about her Sturgis trip.  She recently reported to me that she finds their comments both offensive and irritating.  My initial reaction was “What did you expect?”, but I did not express that sentiment to her.  I’ve informally asked some of the guys to tone it down, but I’m not sure I’m getting through to them.  What recommendations would you make regarding how this should be handled? Answer→

Non-Fraternization Policies, Quirky Question # 30

Quirky Question # 30:

We are a large, national, medical device company.  Over the years, we’ve adopted personnel policies to provide appropriate guidance to our workforce and to comply with federal and state laws.  We have a well defined and clear sexual harassment policy.  Notwithstanding our sexual harassment policy, we find that we periodically confront workplace problems associated with relationships among co-workers that fall apart.  (We’ve had this happen with married couples going through a divorce, as well as couples who were just dating.)  These situations are exasperating.  Consequently, our company is considering adopting a broad “Non-Fraternization” policy, prohibiting relationships between employees.  Is this a good idea or will we be plagued with enforcement problems? Answer→

Disparaging Comments on Web, Quirky Question # 14

Quirky Question # 14:

One of our employees discovered fortuitously (by Googling his own name) that a co-worker down the hall has been posting messages to a Web-blog, in which he identified the employee by name and made graphic, negative sexual observations about him.  Not surprisingly, the two employees are not friends.  The subject of the comments had no idea that this conduct was going on and is worried about how these comments already have or will affect his reputation (both within the company and outside of it).

We intend to terminate the employee who placed the comments on the Blog.  Are there any risks associated with that discharge?  We also wonder what actions, if any, the company should take vis-’a-vis the employee about whom the comments were made?  Does that employee have any legal rights that could be asserted against either the company or the employee we expect to terminate? Answer→

Sexual Harassment — Employment of Minors, Quirky Question # 12

Quirky Question # 12:

Our company employs a lot of minors.  We have a policy prohibiting sexual harassment.  It is written for our work force as a whole and is not tailored toward the high school students we employ.  A friend of mine recently told me that our policy has to be understandable by the high school students for it to be valid.  Is that true?  Also, we occasionally get complaints from the parents of the kids who work at our firm.  I don’t pay much attention to those complaints since some of these parents are overprotective and I figure that kids will let me know if they truly have a concern.  In your view, are there any problems with this approach? Answer→

Sexual Harassment (Round 2), Quirky Question # 5

Quirky Question # 5:

I read your Quirky Question # 4.  Unlike your last reader, I am not in our company’s Human Resources Department.  But I am the attorney within our Office of the General Counsel with responsibility for addressing employment issues.

One of our HR representatives informed me that she had received a sexual harassment complaint by one of our employees.  The complaint involved conduct by one of our company’s executives.  Although the employee was apprehensive about making a complaint against this individual due to his stature within the company, she did so.

Unlike the fact pattern of your last Quirky Question, although the employee was uneasy about the company initiating an investigation, she did not advise our HR representative that she would address the problem herself.  Rather, she clearly wanted HR to help and it did.  The company conducted an investigation, which corroborated many of the employee’s complaints (dimwitted comments relating to sex, affectionate physical gestures, discussion of marital problems, odd interaction at after-work gatherings at a local watering hole, etc.).  We took appropriate disciplinary steps to stop the behaviors that were troubling our employee, not to mention inconsistent with our Company’s harassment policy.

Lately, I have noticed that the complaining employee seems to be spending a lot of time with the Executive about whom she complained.  She seems to be interacting frequently with him, both at work and, as far as I can tell, after work.  I’m not sure what HR should do, what I should do, or whether the company needs to do anything at all.  Got any advice? Answer→

Sexual Harassment, Quirky Question # 4

Quirky Question # 4:

I am an HR Representative.  One of my duties is to take complaints regarding workplace discrimination, including sexual harassment. One of our female employees recently complained to me that she feels as though she is being sexually harassed by one of our top salesmen.  (He is not her supervisor, but she does work on the team that supports sales after they have been made, so he could provide some feedback to her superiors on her performance.)

When she told me about the situation, she was somewhat vague.  She also informed me that she will “handle it,” and does not want me to take any action on her behalf.  She says that she simply wanted me to know “what’s going on.”

I’ve honored her request that have not done anything in the several weeks since she made her report.  I’d like to know what’s really “going on” but I’m trying not to intrude.  Do you have any guidance for me? Answer→

Executive Termination, Quirky Question # 1

Quirky Question # 1:

We recently terminated one of our executives “without cause.”  Under his employment contract, we are obligated to pay one year’s severance for terminations without cause.  In contrast, we have no obligation to pay him anything if he is terminated “with cause.”  Following his departure, we reviewed his computer hard drive.  We discovered two areas of concern.

First, he had downloaded pornography onto his work computer, in violation of our clear policies regarding use of company computers and sexual harassment.  Second, much to our surprise, we found on his computer a substantial number of confidential documents that he had taken from the company where he worked before joining our firm.  This too violates our company policies – we strictly prohibit employees from introducing confidential, proprietary and trade secret information belonging to a former employer into our work place, whether in hard copy or electronic form.

Had we known these facts, we would have fired the executive for cause.  Do we still have to pay him his one year severance pay? Answer→