The Queen Bee Syndrome
"Sexually harassing her? That's preposterous!" Arch protested. "I have never so much as had a sexual thought about Eloise Duquesne, let alone harass her! Just what exactly did she say I supposedly did?" he asked, totally flabbergasted.
"Eloise claims that you were fondling yourself and leering at her while she was filing," Veronica informed him. Veronica was the regional human resources manager. She had received a call from Eloise a few days earlier and had flown in from regional headquarters for the investigation.
"Well, she's nuts," Arch insisted.
Although Veronica was not surprised that Arch denied the allegation, this was the first time she had ever heard him speak with such conviction or force. Normally, Arch was very mild-mannered and had a reputation for staying cool in a crisis.
"Look, Arch, we've been put on notice. As a result, I've got to conduct a full investigation. It's clear that you deny the allegations. Eloise's claim is that you've harassed her to the point that she's too mentally stressed to work. She wants workers' compensation for a stress-related disability," Veronica said.
"That's such a bunch of bull, Veronica," Arch scoffed, then regained his composure. "Okay, do what you have to do. I understand; it's part of the drill. But I can promise you this: you won't find a soul who'll substantiate this nonsense."
"I hope you're right, Arch," Veronica replied.
Veronica was perplexed. Eloise's allegation seemed far afield. Arch was a 15-year employee with an unblemished record. Nevertheless, Veronica recognized she could not allow her biases to shortcut the investigation. She talked with every employee in the office who would have an opportunity to observe any possible inappropriate behavior. As Arch predicted, she came up dry.
Since Veronica could not support Eloise's allegation, she decided to protest the workers' compensation claim. Part of the strategy was to have Eloise undergo a psychiatric evaluation. Among the items in Dr. Kampmeir's report, Veronica was most interested in the following portions:
Mrs. Duquesne is prone to fantasizing. She admitted that she fantasizes on a regular basis about many things in her life. She stated that she sexually fantasized about her husband; her supervisor, Arch Lanfried; as well as other male co-workers . . . . Mrs. Duquesne also stated that she was angry with Mr. Lanfried. She claimed that he recently reduced her responsibilities by delegating some of her duties to others. She felt betrayed and demoralized over this change . . . . We recommend she be denied disability for stress caused by sexual harassment.
After reviewing the report, Veronica met with Arch to follow up. She told him that there was no direct evidence to the sexual harassment charge. Then she gave him a copy of the sexual harassment policy.
"Arch, it's in your best interest to review the policy. Make sure that you don't put yourself in any situations in the future that may lay cause for another claim–this is for your own protection," she advised him.
"But I know the policy," he responded. "You know Eloise's claim was nothing but smoke."
"Even so, Arch," she repeated, "please review the policy, and if you have any questions, let me know," she said, smiling warmly.
"Okay," Arch shrugged.
"Now, Arch, I have just one other thing I need to check on. The psychiatrist's report indicated that Eloise was angered over the changes you made in her job. Can you tell me about that?"
"Sure," Arch began, "the volume of work in our department has increased dramatically. Although Eloise is good, no human being could possibly keep up with the work. I explained to her that I was going to get her some help so that we could meet the volume demands. She kept insisting that she would be able to get a handle on it if I gave her a couple of weeks. I agreed, but after the two weeks were up, she was still behind. So I had to give some of her duties to Lois. But I assure you, Veronica, I never suggested to her that the removal of these duties had anything to do with her competence. Unfortunately, I think she suffers from the "Queen Bee" syndrome and just didn't want to give anything up," Arch said.
Veronica was satisfied that Arch had not created any additional problems that might come back to haunt her. Then Veronica met with Eloise.
"Eloise, based on our internal investigation and the psychiatric evaluation, your workers' compensation claim has been denied. We would be happy to transfer you to another department, if you would be more comfortable," Veronica suggested.
"Forget it. I can't work here. I'm not coming back. Consider this my resignation," Eloise barked.
Veronica suspected Eloise might react negatively, so she had armed herself with the appropriate documents. "I regret that you feel this way, but if you insist, I'll process your paperwork," Veronica said dispassionately.
"Well, I do. I insist!" Eloise declared.
As though on cue, Veronica slid one of the forms across the table toward Eloise. "Well then, we'll certainly respect your wishes. Now, if you'll review this and sign at the bottom," Veronica said, with the composure of a seasoned poker player in a high-stakes game.
As Eloise signed the last document, Veronica wanted to shout "Hallelujah!" But instead, she called Arch to inform him of Eloise's decision. Then Veronica escorted Eloise to her worksite and supervised the removal of her personal belongings from her desk.
Superficially, this appears to be a well-handled case. Veronica conducted a prompt, thorough investigation concerning the sexual harassment allegation. She apparently followed policy by properly notifying and counseling Arch. Also, Eloise's voluntary resignation seemingly ended any prospects of further problems.
Despite the ultimate outcome, the panel disagreed on one critical procedure–Veronica's overeagerness to accept Eloise's resignation. A few panel members who support Veronica's quick actions believe it is good employee relations practice to "always accept a resignation" when supported by the facts. We feel that Veronica did her homework and came to a reasonable conclusion that Eloise was either mistaken, unbalanced, or unethical. Accepting Eloise's resignation with grace and charm was a clean and simple approach toward severing an untenable employee-employer relationship. The loss of Eloise probably left the company no worse off.
Even in the unlikely event that new evidence developed suggesting there was some substance to Eloise's story, it would be easier to resolve than dealing with her performance and possible mental problems. While there are no obvious facts to suggest Eloise will be back to haunt them, our group thinks the company should consider itself lucky. We argue that employees like Eloise are usually harder than this to lose.
The majority of the panel took a different position. We believe that Veronica's preparations to process an immediate resignation seemed a bit too pat. Conceivably, Eloise could claim her resignation was nothing more than a "constructive discharge." She could allege that the company, by creating a hostile work environment and inadequately addressing her concerns, gave her little choice except to resign. In this context, the company's apparent eagerness to accept and process Eloise's resignation could be interpreted as further evidence of an outcome it had maliciously conspired to achieve. To avoid this perception, we would have suggested to Eloise that she reconsider. We also would have referred her to an employee assistance program for help.
One member from this group also pointed out other issues worthy of consideration. Although Eloise may not have had a case for sexual harassment, she may have had a sustainable complaint based on sex discrimination. There is no evidence in the text that Veronica examined whether gender had an influence on Eloise's change in duties. Arch's actions regarding Eloise's assignment are not typical of those taken with male employees under similar circumstances. His casual reference to Eloise as a "Queen Bee" could be symptomatic of some deeper attitude problems.
Despite no finding of illegal harassment or discrimination, in certain jurisdictions, Eloise's claim for workers' compensation may be upheld. She may be able to make a case that her work environment (including supervisory actions) induced an unusually high level of stress, which impaired her ability to perform her job functions.
The number of workers' compensation claims in this country has reached staggering proportions. While most such claims are legitimate, an alarming number are false–causing burdensome insurance premiums for the employers, excessive absenteeism, and loss of productivity in the workplace.
It is gratifying to see that Veronica took steps to oppose a claim that her investigation showed to be meritless. While it is unlawful to retaliate against an individual who has filed a workers' compensation claim, an employer has a right to oppose a claim that it believes is a sham or is frivolous. Opposition to meritless claims should not be confused with unlawful retaliation.
This story also illustrates that a sexual harassment investigation sometimes results in finding that the harassment allegations are false and the alleged harasser is vindicated. Because some harassment claims are meritless, it is important to keep investigations as confidential as possible so as not to run the risk of liability by defaming–ruining the reputation or career of–the alleged harasser.
In a situation such as this, where an employee chooses to resign, the company should require the employee to submit a resignation letter. A voluntarily submitted resignation letter signed by the employee would assist the company in defending itself against an unemployment insurance claim.
Excerpted from Sex, Laws, & Stereogypes, by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.©