Company clobbered by hostile environment ruling
There are many reasons why HR might choose to ignore an employee complaint about harassment instead of following up with a thorough and timely investigation.
Maybe the manager is highly valued – an all-around great guy whom you don’t want to alienate; and maybe the complainant’s a known whiner. Or perhaps you fear that if you launched an work investigation, other complainers would come out of the woodwork. Really, who wants to open that can of worms?
Those may sound like good reasons, but watch out! Here’s a case where HR chose not to investigate an employee complaint because it feared the investigation might lead to more complaints. Unfortunately, that decision led to a $438,145 judgment against the employer. Could this happen at your organization?
FACTS OF THE CASE
Shireen Walsh worked as an account representative for NCS, a computer company. A top performer, Walsh received numerous promotions, raises and outstanding performance evaluations.
After Walsh had been with NCS for four years, Barbara Mickelson became her new supervisor. When Mickelson arrived, Walsh was pregnant – and experiencing complications that required frequent medical attention. NCS had a policy that entitled exempt employees (such as Walsh) to take unlimited sick leave for doctor appointments for themselves or their children.
Nonetheless, Mickelson repeatedly asked Walsh for advanced notice and documentation of doctor appointments. But other account representatives (none of whom was pregnant) weren’t required to provide notification or documentation for their appointments.
A month after Mickelson’s arrival, Walsh took full-time medical leave for the birth of her son. When she returned to work about four months later, she immediately experienced what she felt was hostility from Mickelson.
On her first day back at work when Walsh was showing pictures of her son to coworkers, Michelson told her to stop disrupting the office and get back to work. The same day, Mickelson gave the other account executives the afternoon off, but ordered Walsh to stay behind and answer the phones.
One morning when Walsh arrived at the office seven minutes late, she received an e-mail from Mickelson – sent when Walsh was just three minutes late – reprimanding her for her tardiness and suggesting that Mickelson was scrutinizing Walsh’s work hours.
After two months of such treatment, Walsh complained to HR. Unfortunately, instead of looking into the matter, one HR manager said that if Walsh intended to accuse her manager of being unethical, she’d “better have proof.” Another HR manager said that he “didn’t want to take sides.”
Two months after her employee complaint to HR fell on deaf ears, Walsh resigned and filed a hostile-work-environment complaint with the EEOC. The case went to a jury, which awarded Walsh nearly half a million dollars.
Why didn’t the department go to bat for Walsh, investigate her employee complaint and take action? The courtroom records indicate that HR may have been afraid that an investigation would lead to even more charges of harassment against Mickelson from employees who’d been victimized by her, but hadn’t complained. In hindsight, of course, HR couldn’t afford not to investigate the employee complaint.
Bottom line: Follow up on every employee complaint, regardless of its subject or its source. And when conducting a work investigation, remember to be:
Fast. Start the investigation as soon as possible and complete promptly.
Thorough. Interview all parties and listen to all sides. Take careful notes; date and save them because you may need them in court.
Objective. Don’t take sides. Keep an open mind as you make inquiries and piece together the events as they occurred.
Confidential. Let the subject of your investigation, the complainant and the witnesses know that you will do everything you can to protect their identities and spare them embarrassment.
Cite: Walsh v. National Computer Systems, Inc., U.S. Court of Appeals, 8th Circuit, No. 02-2242, 7/23/03.
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