Shower Power–Part 2
Doreen immediately contacted Jim's boss, the vice president of sales, Skip Carrouthers. She told him that Jim was conducting some questionable interviewing activities and asked for a list of all Jim's direct reports and his schedule of interviews that week. Skip was shocked; he had been unaware of Jim's activities.
When Doreen talked to several women Jim had hired recently, they all confirmed Jim's bizarre interview tactics. Many repeated the statement he made about selling romance, while others said he told them they were selling lust and love. None of them actually took Jim up on his offer to demonstrate the product. However, they gave various accounts of his intimate line of questioning regarding their bathing techniques, followed by graphically lurid discussions. All the interviews revealed variations on the same sexually offensive theme. Each woman managed to keep Jim at bay during the interview. Once they got their jobs and started producing sales, they no longer had contact with him.
Doreen discussed her findings with Skip and then interviewed Jim to hear his side of the story. When Skip brought Jim to Doreen's office, she got right to the point.
"Jim, it's come to our attention that your interviewing techniques are rather unconventional. Several interviewees have reported that you asked them sexually intimate questions and requested they take a shower with you. Is that true?"
"What's wrong with asking the applicant to take a shower together so I can demonstrate the proper use and application of our soap bar?" he asked, smirking and winking at Skip.
Jim's flippancy infuriated Doreen. "I get the impression that you think this is a joke. It's not a joke. First of all, it's against the law. Secondly, it's immoral. The company does not condone this behavior. We are selling a soap product to cleanse the body. We are not selling your sexual fantasies," she said evenly.
"Well, don't you believe in learning by doing?" Jim sneered.
Doreen felt a compelling desire to leap across the desk and dig her newly manicured nails deeply into his throat as she throttled him into a lifeless state. Fortunately, her professional training restrained her. "There is nowhere in any training manual that even remotely suggests this type of demonstration is acceptable. Furthermore, you have never heard any executive in the company suggest that you indulge in this type of interviewing. It was totally inappropriate and well beyond the range of normal business behavior. Your actions have placed the company in serious jeopardy for a sexual harassment lawsuit. We will not tolerate your behavior. You are out the door as of today. We will not capitulate on this. You should have known better," she replied, rising from her seat. "Skip will arrange for your personal belongings to be sent to your home, and your final paycheck is ready now."
After Jim and Skip departed, Doreen contacted Angeline and informed her that Jim was no longer with the company. She explained that Jim's behavior was not typical and asked her if she would consider another interview with Jim's replacement. This time the company would fly her to corporate headquarters for a formal interview. Angeline agreed and eventually was hired.
Doreen was superb. She responded promptly and took the complaint seriously. The first thing she did was contact Jim's boss, but she retained control of the investigation. Our only criticism of her action was her characterization of Jim's behavior as immoral. Revealing that type of bias muddies the waters and could come back to haunt her. However, we fully support her decision to terminate Jim. (We suspect Jim was out of the country during the Clarence Thomas hearings, missed his sexual harassment training, or just doesn't get it.)
We were also pleased that Doreen followed up promptly with Angeline. Calling Angeline to let her know of the corrective measures taken and inviting her to engage in a legitimate interview was a good decision. Angeline may be less likely to take further steps against the company knowing that they have sound policies and practices.
This incident points out that the company probably should have done a better job communicating its sexual harassment and proper conduct policy guidelines. Training the company's managers on both sexual harassment and interviewing techniques should have prevented Jim's offensive interviewing style. The company was fortunate it did not face legal action from the current or past episodes. Employers are generally responsible for sexually harrassing behavior whether they are aware of it or not.
The company should protect itself in the future by changing its interviewing practices. The least expensive way would be to mandate that interviews be held in public places, such as hotel lobby areas or restaurants. Alternatively, the company could arrange to have at least two members of corporate staff participate in each interview. Another option is to conduct initial interviews over the telephone and then invite truly viable candidates to corporate headquarters for a final interview.
This story emphasizes why we counsel our clients to develop sexual harassment training for their managers and employees. With all the recent press about sexual harassment, many managers and employees are concerned about what is appropriate or inappropriate behavior between the sexes on the job.
Doreen acted appropriately in this situation. Once a complaint of sexual harassment has been made, an employer should investigate the allegation by interviewing the alleged victim, the alleged harasser's supervisor, other persons who may have knowledge of the harassment, and the alleged harasser. Under the circumstances, considering Jim's conduct and attitude, terminating Jim seemed to be the sensible thing to do. While there is no legal requirement to do so, it makes practical sense to communicate the result of the investigation to the complainant. Such feedback signals to the complainant that the company takes the complaint seriously and is doing something about it. It gives the company some credibility and often decreases the possibility that an unhappy or distraught employee will take his or her complaint to an outside agency. Doreen also diffused the situation by giving Angeline another opportunity to interview for the sales position–this time not in a hotel room.
Sexual harassment is not confined to the classic quid pro quo "sleep with me if you want the job or if you want the promotion." As in this scenario, sexual harassment, in the form of unwelcome, pervasive sexual and lewd comments, may take place during an interview with an applicant. That some of the women who were subjected to Jim's interviewing ritual were in fact hired and not subjected to any other harassment does not diminish the unlawfulness of his actions or the employer's risk of liability. Sexual harassment may occur even though a complaining individual did not lose any tangible job benefits.
In addition to liability under federal law, employers may also be subject to liability for sexual harassment under state laws–with the state laws sometimes having different standards of liability. For example, the New Jersey Supreme Court held that when a supervisory employee engages in hostile environment sexual harassment, the employer will be strictly liable for all equitable remedies (including back pay, front pay, reinstatement, and other injunctive relief) regardless of whether the employer knew or even could have known that the sexual harassment had occurred.
Excerpted from Sex, Laws, & Stereotypes, by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.©