Vigilant Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law, HR, safety & workers' comp

Sep 14, 2016

Prompt investigation saves employer from harassment liability

Harassment & Discrimination 

In a nod to the value of HR professionals, a federal district court in Tennessee dismissed an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission (EEOC) case against Autozone, finding that the company did enough to stop alleged harassment by a store manager.

How did the company address allegations of sexual harassment in the workplace?

In this case, a female employee complained to the District Manager, indicating that the male store manager was making sexual comments and advances. After confirming with another employee, the District Manager contacted the HR Manager. The HR Manager called the employee, who later faxed a complaint alleging sexual harassment. The next day, the HR Manager met with three employees in person, obtaining written statements. A week later, the HR Manager informed the original complainant that the manager would be moved to a different store and asked whether she was comfortable working with him until then. She was. The store manager was terminated a few weeks later.

Did the company adequately address the complaints? EEOC says no, court rules yes

The EEOC argued that Autozone failed to promptly fix the alleged sexual harassment, resulting in extensive monetary and emotional damages to three female employees. The court resoundingly disagreed. It first noted that the store manager was not a supervisor because he didn’t have the power to fire or demote employees. As such, Autozone would only be liable if it knew or should have known of the conduct and failed to adequately respond to the allegations of sexual harassment. According to the court, an adequate response is “reasonably calculated to end harassment,” shown by immediately investigating, collecting statements, circling back with the complainant, and reporting harassment to management. Autozone’s HR manager did all of these and the perpetrator was terminated (Equal Employment Opportunity Commission v. Autozone, Inc., WD Tenn, July 2016).

Tips: Although prevention is the best defense, workplace harassment still happens. To avoid liability, train supervisors to spot and report harassment immediately. If an employee complains about harassment, conduct a prompt, impartial investigation. Your Vigilant employment attorney can help you decide what kind of investigation you need and how to respond to the information collected. For more advice on how to conduct the investigation, see our Legal Guide, “Conducting an Internal Investigation.”

If you’re a California employer, Vigilant offers a sexual harassment prevention training for supervisors, which focuses on what defines sexual harassment, how employers can be held liable for harassment, and what guidelines to follow when responding to a harassment complaint or when enforcing the company’s non-harassment policy. Learn more about this training course, “California Sexual Harassment Prevention Training for Supervisors” along with the other employee training courses we offer.

This website presents general information in nontechnical language. This information is not legal advice. Before applying this information to a specific management decision, consult legal counsel.