Washing Away the Evidence–Part 2
Morris arrived at work the next day as usual. Chloe and her boss called him into the office. "Morris, there have been some accusations about your actions that require us to conduct an investigation for sexual harassment," Chloe stated.
"I'm not surprised," Morris responded coolly. "I got a visit from the police last night. The whole thing is ludicrous. You couldn't possibly believe anything like that from someone as mentally deficient as Eva."
"Despite your feelings about Eva's mental capacity, we're obligated by law to investigate any claim of sexual harassment. Given the nature of the situation, we are going to suspend you with pay during the internal investigation," Chloe said, just as coolly.
"Fine, suit yourself," Morris replied in a blasé manner.
Chloe arranged for Morris to be escorted from the building and began her investigation. She learned from the other warehouse workers that they had observed him showing lewd pictures to Eva and joking with her. They overheard such comments as, "Eva, look at this picture, what do you think?" Morris had attempted similar tactics with other stock clerks. They responded to his behavior with a straightforward "Bug off."
Based on the investigation, they discharged Morris for sexual harassment. Unfortunately, the district attorney did not feel he had sufficient evidence to prosecute Morris on the rape charge or any lesser charge.
To help Eva deal with the trauma, Chloe made arrangements with the social service agency who originally placed Eva. They provided ongoing counseling to Eva for an extended period. After nearly a year of counseling, Eva fully recovered and continues to be an excellent worker.
This is a tragic situation. Eva's case unfortunately adds to the international statistics on reported crime and violence in the workplace. The saddest part is that the incident could have been prevented.
If the social service agency had educated Eva to recognize unacceptable workplace behavior, she may have responded differently to Morris's overtures. Her understanding of sexual harassment could have been reinforced if the company provided training that illustrated appropriate and inappropriate workplace behaviors. Moreover, if the training outlined reporting procedures for such incidents, Eva would have known where to go for help. She probably wouldn't have remained silent about Morris's repeated attempts to engage her attention with X-rated movies and lurid photographs.
Under the circumstances, Chloe handled the situation well. Rape is a crime and should be investigated by the police. She acted appropriately by contacting them immediately and offering support to Eva and her mother throughout the investigation process.
Chloe was also correct to suspend Morris during the investigation. She fulfilled her obligation to the employees by ensuring a safe workplace until she could gather all the facts. We support her decision to discharge Morris after obtaining sufficient evidence about his inappropriate conduct. The fact that the district attorney had insufficient evidence to prosecute Morris for rape does not absolve Morris of his acts of sexual harassment.
Chloe's follow-up in this case was also excellent. We applaud her for arranging Eva's ongoing counseling with the social service agency that placed her with the company. We suggest, however, that the company arrange a more extensive orientation and closer supervision for future employees who are mentally disabled. Chloe should ensure that these employees fully understand which behaviors are inappropriate as well as when and to whom such incidents should be reported. Chloe might also consider developing a mentor program by appointing a "big brother or sister" to help these employees deal with difficult situations.
Although our last suggestion is minor, it merits attention. It probably wasn't appropriate for Chloe to hug Eva. While we recognize that Eva was vulnerable and needed some reassurance, this was a business situation, and Chloe had not heard all the facts. It was possible that Eva's allegations were false. Hugging someone in such a situation might lead the employee to believe that the company is on his or her side 100 percent.
As the official human resources representative in a sexual harassment case, Chloe should remain unbiased and swayed only by facts. However, given the overall circumstances of this situation and Eva's fragile condition, this was a very minor transgression and does not detract from the overall excellent handling of the situation.
To say this story illustrates the extreme of sexual harassment would be an understatement. This story highlights the importance of training employees to heighten their awareness and sensitivity regarding sexual harassment in the workplace. While a sexual harassment policy and training programs may not have prevented Morris's assault against Eva, it may have encouraged other employees to come forward earlier to report Morris's conduct toward Eva and other stock clerks.
With the success of the ADA, many capable individuals with mental disabilities, such as Eva, will be entering the workforce in greater numbers. Human resources managers, as well as all employees, need to develop an understanding and awareness that some individuals will be more vulnerable to certain situations and appropriate safeguards for their welfare must be taken. Since Chloe knew that Eva had an intellect of a 10-year-old, she or a supervisor should have "kept an eye out for her." Placing Eva in a warehouse at night and on weekends where there appeared to be insufficient supervision was inappropriate. The company could be liable for negligence for failing to provide a safe and secure workplace.
While employers should always do reference checks on applicants who are being considered for employment, it is especially important to conduct a criminal conviction records check on any applicant or employee being considered for a position in which there will be little or no supervision, such as a night shift.
Excerpted from Sex, Laws, & Stereotypes, by N. Elizabeth Fried, Ph.D.©