Employment Law Blog

News, trends and analysis in employment law and HR

Apr 28, 2014

Supervisor’s lax oversight of harasser results in jury trial

 

Two female employees have sufficient evidence of extreme and ongoing workplace harassment to argue their claims before a jury, according to a federal district court in Washington.

Two female employees have sufficient evidence of extreme and ongoing workplace harassment to argue their claims before a jury, according to a federal district court in Washington. The employees worked as sales account executives for an internet-based media advertising company. The women allege they were repeatedly harangued with sexually explicit emails, some even coming from the supervisor, as well as verbal tirades from the team leader (in a nonsupervisory role).

The tirades from the team leader were laced with condescending language, sexual slurs, and violent behavior, triggering complaints from the employees. Human Resources investigated, ultimately recommending written warnings to the team leader and supervisor. In court, the employer successfully argued that it was not liable for the supervisor’s inappropriate emails because it had distributed an anti-harassment policy and the employees didn’t complain about the supervisor’s actions.  However, because the supervisor may or should have known of the team leader’s actions, the court sided with the employees and allowed the coworker hostile work environment claim to continue, as well as claims for constructive discharge and emotional distress. Now a jury will hear the evidence (Wahlman v. Datasphere Technologies, Inc., WD Wash, Feb. 2014).  

Harassment and discrimination don’t only exist on site. They can continue online through social media as well, which is why it is so important to take reasonable steps as an employer to raise awareness about your anti-harassment policies.

Tips: We can’t say it enough: Train your supervisors on spotting and preventing harassment! The employer in this case was able to show it had an anti-harassment policy and reporting procedure, protecting itself from liability for the supervisor’s inappropriate emails. However, it could not side-step its responsibility for allowing a coworker to create an abusive environment. Your supervisors are your eyes and ears for inappropriate behavior and policy violations. Even more important, how your supervisors treat and protect employees represents how you value your employees. Is it time to schedule anti-harassment training? If so, call your Vigilant staff representative to get started. For an overview of what constitutes prohibited harassment, see our Legal Guide, “At a Glance: Workplace Harassment” (6257).

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