Workers must allow for reasonable time to conduct employee complaint investigations
The look on Kate Whitney’s face said it all to HR director Rob Owen. She’d come to his office to announce her resignation.
“What can I do for you, Kate?” asked Rob.
“Nothing. I just want you to know I quit – effective immediately. And you should know I’ve been talking to a lawyer friend of mine about this hostile work environment.”
Behavior began on day one
Rob hoped Kate wouldn’t sue Summit Services. “We conducted a workplace investigation into your complaints about your boss,” he told her, “and even though we couldn’t turn up any evidence he harassed you, we spoke with him and he promised not even to speak to you unless others are present in the room.”
“That’s not enough,” snapped Kate. “He made my life a living hell for two months. And I can’t take it anymore!”
According to Kate, her boss, Brian Samuels, started coming on to her the first day she reported to work. He told her she didn’t look her age. Next he suggested she leave her husband behind when she took vacation and bring him along instead. On one occasion he told her she had the body of a college girl. And twice he came up behind her and rubbed her shoulders.
After two months on the job she took her complaints to HR, which promptly started a workplace investigation. Rob and his staff determined Brian had made a number of inappropriate comments to Kate – though no witnesses acknowledged seeing him deliver uninvited backrubs.
After the workplace investigation, Brian was told to avoid speaking with Kate when they were alone. But he faced no other punishment. “And that is totally not right,” Kate told the HR director.
Kate quit two weeks after the investigation and filed a lawsuit claiming the company failed to stop a hostile work environment from occurring.
Did she win?
No. Kate lost her lawsuit.
The court noted Kate’s supervisor had engaged in “boorish behavior,” but that behavior was not enough to create a hostile work environment.
Further, Kate faced no adverse actions for spurning her boss’s advances: She wasn’t fired, demoted or punished.
Inappropriate remarks ended by workplace investigation
Most important, HR responded to Kate’s complaints by conducting a prompt and thorough workplace investigation.
Rob questioned Kate, Brian and several witnesses. Brian was told not to address Kate unless they were in the presence of others. He apologized to her and he never again made an inappropriate remark to her.
The court wrote, “Even if we were to assume the supervisor’s actions did create a hostile working environment, we would exonerate Summit because it took reasonable care to prevent it.”
The court noted that as soon as the employer heard Kate’s allegations, it launched an investigation.
However, by waiting two months to register her complaint and quitting just two weeks after the investigation, Kate could not be said to have acted reasonably.
Cite: Thompson v. Naphcare, Inc. U.S. Court of Appeals, 5th Circuit, No. 04-60028, 12/7/04. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.
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