Roadmap to Stop Harassment in the Workplace

In the wake of the controversy surrounding Fox CEO Roger Ailes, it is worth reviewing how to handle the problem of  harassment in the workplace.

Ailes, 76,was recently forced out of his position at the television network that he helped found because of complaints of sexual harassment that allegedly dated back for decades.

The EEOC created a select task force in January 2015 to study the general problem of workplace harassment, including sexual harassment. The task force, which included experts from around the country, issued a report last month recommending that employers actively promote an organizational culture of respect and civility.

The task force recommended:

  •  Employers should have a comprehensive anti-harassment policy that prohibits harassment based on any protected characteristic, and which includes social media considerations.
  • The anti-harassment policy should include details about how to complain of  and how to report harassment, must be communicated frequently to employees, in a variety of forms and methods.
  • Employers should provide reporting procedures that are multi-faceted, offering a range of methods, multiple points-of-contact, and geographic and organizational diversity where possible, for an employee to report harassment.
  • Employers should be alert for any possibility of retaliation against an employee who reports harassment and should take steps to ensure that such retaliation does not occur.
  • Employers should periodically “test” their reporting system to determine how well the system is working.
  • Employers should devote enough resources to insure that workplace investigations are prompt, objective, and thorough. Investigations should be kept as confidential as possible, recognizing that complete confidentiality or anonymity will not always be attainable.

Specific details about the report are available on the EEOC web site.

Almost a third of the 90,000 charges received by EEOC in fiscal year 2015 included an allegation of workplace harassment, including charges of unlawful harassment on the basis of sex (including sexual orientation, gender identity, and pregnancy), race, disability, age, ethnicity/national origin, color, and religion. And that is the tip of the iceberg. The EEOC reports that three out of four individuals who experienced harassment did not talk to a supervisor, manager, or union representative about the harassing conduct because they feared disbelief of their claim, inaction on their claim, blame, or social or professional retaliation.

Penalty for Sexual Harassment Rarely Fits The ‘Crime’

Note: News outlets reported July 21, 2016 that Ailes will receive a $40 million buyout from Fox and a new job as an “advisor” to the network.

What should the penalty be for a manager who allegedly abused his power for decades by sexually harassing female subordinates?

Disgrace? Dismissal? Banishment?

Well, that does not appear to be what is happening in the case of Roger Ailes, the chief executive officer of Fox News who allegedly sexually harassed female subordinates since the 1960s.

According to the Drudge Report, 21st Century Fox, the corporate parent of Fox News, is negotiating an exit package with Ailes that includes a $40 million buyout. Other outlets report Fox wants to keep Ailes on the payroll as a consultant. In other words, the consequences of Ailes’ allegedly abusive behavior may consist of a fat check and a change of job title.

One reason that sexual harassment remains epidemic in the American workplace is the lack of any serious consequences for the abuser.  Victims of sexual harassment lose their dignity, sense of trust and  peace of mind. Many lose their jobs and financial security. In the rare instance that a sexual harasser is held to account, the consequences range from a pat on the hand to a quiet suggestion that it is time to move on.

Women in the workplace are well aware they lack any real protection from sexual harassment and this knowledge understandably deters them from reporting the problem.

Ailes woes began a few weeks ago when Gretchen Carlson, a former news anchor, filed a lawsuit claiming that Ailes fired her because she refused to have a sexual relationship with him. Ailes, 76, vigorously denied the accusation. Some observers (including former co-workers) dismissed Carlson’s complaint as a parting shot by an aging beauty queen whose afternoon TV show suffered from poor ratings.  (Fox is presently trying to move Carlson’s lawsuit out of federal court and the public eye into a closed-door arbitration proceedings.)

The problem for Ailes arose because other women began complaining about his allegedly abusive behavior.  Carlson’s attorney, Nancy Erika Smith, said that at least a dozen women contacted her firm after Carlson’s lawsuit was filed complaining of similar harassment by Ailes. The final blow appears to be a story by New York Magazine stating that Fox News star Megyn Kelly told a law firm hired to investigate Carlson’s complaint that Ailes had sexually harassed her a decade ago.

Fox had no choice but to do something.  When an employer receives a complaint that a manager is sexually harassing a subordinate, the employer is on notice and must act to prevent future harm (including retaliation) or it will risk serious damages.  However, the law does not require the employer to actually penalize the harasser.  So Fox’s game plan appears to be this – remove Ailes from his supervisory position, while keeping him happy and on the job.

Sexual Harassment Victims Forgotten in U.S. Supreme Court Appeal

CRSTOne of the most outrageous court rulings in modern history may be the dismissal of a sex discrimination lawsuit filed by hundreds of female truck driver trainees against CRST Van Expedited Inc., which was then awarded  $4.7 million in attorneys’ fees.

On appeal, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eighth Circuit in Missouri upheld the lower court’s dismissal of all but two of the plaintiffs but vacated the attorneys’ fee award. One  of the surviving plaintiffs dropped out of the litigation and the other secured an out of court settlement of $50,000.

This week, CRST asked the U.S. Supreme Court to reinstate the attorneys’ fee award.

The case was a complete train wreck for the EEOC, which initially represented a class of 270 women. Some of the plaintiffs were subject to shocking and violent incidents of  sexual harassment during training runs with CRST male drivers. When they called CRST to complain about the harassment, they were told they had to remain on the truck overnight with the harasser.

After almost six years of litigation, Iowa Chief Judge Linda R. Reade abruptly dismissed the case in its entirety and awarded $4.7 million in attorney fees to CRST.

The 67 alleged sexual harassment victims were denied justice because the EEOC or the U.S. District Court of Iowa (or both) screwed up. Will taxpayers now be forced to pay CRST’s legal bills?

[Read more…]

NH Court Extends Liability for Sexual Harassment

working.oldtypewriterA somewhat  notorious case that illustrates the difficulty of holding sexual harassers to account is in the news again..

The New Hampshire Supreme Court ruled this month that an employee can be held liable for “aiding and abetting an unlawfully discriminatory practice committed by an employer” under the state’s anti-discrimination statute (RSA 354-A:2).

The ruling came in a case involving Fuller Oil Co. of Hudson, N.H. and its owner Frederick J. Fuller.

The company settled an EEOC sexual harassment complaint (without admitting liability) in 2005 by agreeing to pay five women a total of $750,000 and to institute company wide training in sexual harassment prevention. At the time, an EEOC official characterized Mr. Fuller as a “serial” sexual harasser.

In 2013, another EEOC sexual harassment complaint was filed charging Fuller with forcing office worker Nicole Wilkins to quit in 2011 when he allegedly grabbed and squeezed both of her breasts from behind while pinning her against her desk. The EEOC said the alleged assault was the culmination of a growing number of unwanted and inappropriate sexual comments and incidents of touching by Fuller. After Wilkins threatened to file an EEOC complaint, Fuller allegedly retaliated by firing Wilkins’ friend and co-worker, Beverly Mulcahey, for poor performance.

Fuller was subsequently arrested for the incident but settled that case by pleading no contest to a reduced charge of simple assault.

The company apparently refused to settle that case so the EEOC in 2014 filed a lawsuit charging both the company and Fuller with sexual harassment and retaliation. Fuller sought unsuccessfully to dismiss the case on the grounds that his behavior amounted to a single crude gesture and was not objectively offensive. The oil and propane company went bankrupt, which had the effect of staying the lawsuit against the company. Fuller’s attorney then argued that Fuller could not personally be held liable under New Hampshire’s anti-discrimination law for either sexual harassment or retaliation. A U.S. District Court judge asked New Hampshire’s highest court to interpret the state’s anti-discrimination law and decide whether it permits an individual employee to be held liable for aiding and abetting employment discrimination and  retaliation by the employer. New Hampshire’s high court answered “yes” this month.

The New Hampshire court noted the anti-discrimination law  provides that “any act of aiding, abetting, inciting, compelling or coercing another to commit an unlawful discriminatory practice, or attempting to do so, or obstructing or preventing any person from complying with the [law] is itself an unlawful discriminatory practice.”  The Court ruled that absolving individual employees from liability for aiding and abetting employment discrimination is “plainly inconsistent with the stated intent” of the law, which is to “eliminate and prevent discrimination in employment.” Furthermore, the court said individual employees can be held liable for retaliation.

The N.H. high court’s ruling permits Wilkins and Mulcahey to seek monetary damages from Fuller individually for aiding and abetting his former company’s alleged unlawful acts.

 

New Hampshire court adds ominous side note – state’s anti-discrimination law exempts employers with six workers or less.

The N.H. court’s ruling contains an ominous side note. The court noted that New Hampshire’s anti-discrimination law only applies to employers with six or more employees. The court said it is only logical to conclude that if an employer is exempt from the law, individual employees of the employer also are exempt from liability.  So God help workers who work for a New Hampshire company with fewer than six employees.

The case is U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, et al. v. Fred Fuller Oil Company, et al., Case No. 2015-0258 (Feb. 23, 2016).