Most employers understand the importance of having a well-communicated policy that prohibits various forms of illegal harassment, including sexual harassment. Not only can such policies have the beneficial effect of reducing or eliminating the existence of such harassment in the workplace, but a documented program of addressing and correcting such problems can go a long way towards reducing or eliminating potential liability. No company can guarantee a pristine work environment, and the law does not require it. There is, however, a “reasonable care” standard that has been largely adopted by the courts so that employers who can show they have taken reasonable steps to prevent or remedy harassment cannot be held liable for it.
This is a nuanced area of the law, but a few general propositions are borne out by a decision recently issued by the Minnesota Court of Appeals, Allen v. United Piping, Inc. In this case, the plaintiff complained that she was hearing comments of a harassing nature, suggesting that having a woman on the job was a negative. The comments were reported to the Vice-President of Construction. Executives of the employer met with most of the employees involved in the alleged harassment. They were warned that further allegations would result in the termination of their employment. All of the employers about whom the allegations were made received written reprimands in their personnel files. When the employee later reported that she believed she was continuing to experience harassment, the company instituted anti-discrimination and anti-harassment training for all employees. The employee later complained, asserting that she felt uncomfortable during the training because she felt that people in the training room were staring at her and that the trainer was focusing remarks on her. She did not, however, ask the company to take any further action. She was later laid off and then sued for sexual harassment under the Minnesota Human Rights Act.
The Court of Appeals upheld the dismissal of her claims, noting the following types of remedial actions available to an employer:
- Preventive measures, including policy dissemination and the establishment of procedures for resolving complaints of harassment.
- Undertaking efforts to improve the conditions of the complaining employee’s terms of employment, perhaps including a transfer to a different work location; and
- Taking disciplinary action against the offender(s) following an investigation.
Taking these three steps, the court held, eliminated potential liability. Employers are well-advised to not only take such actions but also document that these steps have been implemented. This can go a long way towards eliminating feelings of harassment in the workplace and avoiding liability.