A federal court jury in New York says Isiah Thomas and the New York Knicks are liable for the sexual harassment of a former female executive. The jury found the former employee was subjected to unwanted sexual advances and verbal insults. A retaliation claim also was alleged. While Isiah Thomas still maintains his innocence and vows an appeal, the jury has spoken. The Verdict: the Knicks and its owner owe nearly $12 million in damages. (Thomas escaped punitive damages but his employer was not so lucky).
Could the harassment lawsuit have been avoided?
Employers have an obligation to prevent sexual and other forms of harassment in the workplace. At times employees will screw up but an employer must be prepared. Some ways to avoid harassment claims include the following:
- Have a written policy against harassment which should include an anti-retaliation provision for those employees who report harassment.
- Provide and communicate in writing multiple channels for your complaint procedure. Employees should be able to report harassment to more than one person within the company. The complaint process should be clearly defined in your employment manual.
- Make sure you train supervisors each year and require supervisors to report harassing conduct.
- Once notified of harassing conduct – take immediate action to investigate fully.
- Do not retaliate against employees that make a complaint.
- Discipline or terminate the offender as appropriate.
Michael Moore of the Pennsylvania Employment Law Blog has a great post on this issue and the particular problems created by complaints by high level executives.
The executive absolutely cannot have any direct or indirect control over the investigation. Claims involving the company’s CEO may require HR to go directly to the board of directors to protect the company. Obviously, such action puts HR in an impossible position, so consider using outside counsel to manage the situation.
It is never easy dealing with claims of this nature but do not sweep it under the rug just because a high level employee is involved. The stakes are high and you must follow your written policies and take the complaints seriously. Ignore the behavior or retaliate at your peril.