Did boss err in telling worker to keep mum on harassment probe?
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Did boss err in telling worker to keep mum on harassment probe?

“Certainly, you did the right thing when you encouraged Petra to report her sexual harassment complaint,” supervisor Molly Park told employee Dee Horvath.

“I wish Petra had come directly to me, but I understand you’re good friends, so she was comfortable talking to you,” Molly continued. “And telling her to go to HR was fine. Any complaint can be reported either to HR or to a supervisor.”

“So if what I told Petra isn’t a problem, what is?” Dee asked. “Why have you called me in?”

Spreading the word
“I understand you’ve been talking to a number of people in the company about the harassment complaint,” Molly said. “People in several departments other than this one – some of them friends of yours – are aware of the details.”

“You assume I told them?” Dee replied indignantly.

“I’m not assuming a thing,” Molly said firmly. “I have it on the word of people you talked to.”

“Well, even if I did, what’s wrong with that?” Dee asked. “Are you trying to protect that creep who harassed her?”

No ‘protection’
“We’re investigating, and nobody is protected,” Molly said. “We talk to everyone – accused, accuser, witnesses – and then make an impartial determination about the facts and what to do.”

“But the point is that while we’re investigating, we haven’t yet decided what actually happened,” Molly went on.

“That’s one reason why we ask everyone involved to keep quiet. It’s the best way to be fair to all, and it’s also policy. So please don’t discuss the complaint, even with Petra herself.”

Who’s talking?
“I’m not the only one talking about this,” Dee said stubbornly.

“I’ll be making an announcement reminding everybody of the policy,” Molly said. “But frankly, I had special concerns about you.”

“That wouldn’t be because I’ve complained in the past about discrimination against women in the company, would it?” Dee sneered.

“Absolutely not,” Molly said. “There’s no connection.”

Later, Dee applied for a promotion and was turned down. She sued for sex discrimination and hostile work environment, based in part on the conversation with Molly. Did she win?

The Decision
No, Dee didn’t win her hostile work environment case. The court said it was “not unreasonable” for a supervisor to ask an employee to refrain from talking about a co-worker’s sexual harassment claims. Nor did Molly’s directive to Dee amount to hostility based on gender.

What can supervisors learn from this case?

It’s important to maintain as much confidentiality as possible during complaint investigations, for several reasons: to protect witnesses, to avert any tampering by accuser or accused, and to shield the reputations of people who may not have done anything wrong.

Supervisors should follow company policy on confidentiality. But don’t promise complainants absolute confidentiality when they first come to you; a certain number of people in the organization have to know the facts in order to conduct the investigation.

Cite: Warf v. U.S. Dept. of Veterans Affairs, No. 11-2570, 6th Cir., 4/11/13. Fictionalized for dramatic effect.

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