The Foibles of Fraternizing–Part 2
"He claims you've been sexually harassing him."
"What!" Leanna exclaimed.
"He says that you've been asking him on a daily basis to be a sperm donor for you," Phil said seriously.
"What?" she repeated. Her eyes widened and her mouth gaped.
"That's what he said."
"Now you don't believe that, do you?" she asked incredulously.
"Chad says he's not the only one you've hounded–that you've asked Victor too," Phil reported.
"Oh, geez, Phil, that was in jest. Why in the world, in this day of AIDS, would I go to a gay guy to be a sperm donor? That's absurd," she said.
"Well, Chad claims that because he's been denying you, you're giving him a hard time on the job and he can't deal with the stress. He says he can't face you. He indicated that the work environment is so hostile, he can't come back. He's been in therapy the past few weeks over this and is under a doctor's care for ulcers."
Leanna found the whole ordeal baffling. Could it be that Chad created this nonexistent romantic triangle so he could have a scapegoat to blame for his own disappointments? His motive became clearer when the company received a threatening letter from Chad's attorney. The letter indicated that Chad would go to the newspapers if the company didn't settle for three-quarters of a million dollars in damages. The company responded that Chad was welcome to share his story with the media, but if that were the case, they would countersue for defamation. Eventually the company agreed to settle the case by paying for his therapy charges if Chad would agree not to sue for further damages. Chad accepted the offer and settled for under $1,000.
This story contains the unfortunate element of a manager who suspects a problem, but fails to pursue because of a misguided sense of privacy and an attempt to be politically correct. When Dan implied that Chad was making unwelcomed advances, Leanna should have addressed the issue head-on by following the standard procedure for investigating a sexual harassment claim.
Furthermore, when Chad's interactions with her soured, affecting his performance, Leanna should not have waited a week to discuss his behavior. She should have addressed the situation much sooner and documented their discussion. At a minimum, she should have indicated that she provided a counseling session with him regarding his performance and set up an action plan for improvement.
Leanna diminished her credibility by becoming so personal with her co-workers. It was inappropriate to discuss her medical conditions at the office. There must be certain lines of demarcation between personal life and business. This fact came back to haunt her when Chad filed his sexual harassment claim.
Dan showed very poor judgment as well by asking Chad out on the town. Human resources professionals should know better. Unfortunately, too often we don't take our own advice. When line managers do something like this, we lecture them about what they should have done. We're great at assigning guilt, but don't always recognize the human frailty in ourselves.
The brave new human resources world of this millenium is sure to produce many variations on the sexual harassment theme–and this story is probably not as unique as it appears. It also shows that even well-informed and conscientious managers may not be able to forestall claims from all employees who feel aggrieved and highlights the importance of adopting policies and procedures designed to minimize the risk of such claims and maximize the chances of prevailing in those suits that cannot be avoided.
As this story shows, either sex may be the victim or the offender in sexual harassment situations. One of the subtle issues here is whether Dan had a claim against the employer for tolerating or permitting a sexually offensive work environment. Once Leanna was aware that Chad's conduct had become "unwelcome" to Dan, warning bells should have gone off. It would have been prudent for Leanna to have conducted (or caused) a prompt investigation at that time, followed by prompt and appropriate corrective measures to prevent the sexually offensive or hostile environment. Indeed, if Leanna had moved quickly to defuse the situation and made it clear that Chad was the offender rather than the victim, the company's interests would have been better served than by her passive reaction approach.
While the information Dan provided about Chad's unwelcome advances toward him may have been told to Leanna as a friend, as a human resources manager, once she was aware of it, the company was on notice that there was a possibility that Chad was sexually harassing Dan. In a hostile environment context, the employer will be liable for the offensive conduct of workers if the employer knew or should have known that a sexually offensive or abusive atmosphere existed.
This story also raises another sticky business issue that employers are increasingly faced with today: what to do in situations where a disgruntled employee is attempting to extort money from or "get even" with an employer by filing unmeritorious charges. One arrow in the employer's quiver not mentioned here is the possibility of securing a release from the employee.