What you do as the employer to address those charges may in large part determine what happens next.
Here are five things you'll want to avoid doing if an employee files a workplace sexual harassment claim:
- Fire the employee. Firing an employee after he or she complains about sexual harassment can potentially be considered unlawful retaliation. That's what's alleged in a recent lawsuit against Starbucks, according to the New York Daily News: Although Starbucks says it fired Holly Wu for asking an employee to work an extra 45 minutes, Wu's federal lawsuit claims she was fired after complaining about repeated sexual harassment by co-workers, who had allegedly nicknamed her "Big Booty Holly."
- Ignore the complaint. Another real-life example shows why you shouldn't ignore sexual harassment complaints. Grocery store owner Karen Connors ignored employee complaints that one of her managers, who also happened to be her romantic interest, was sexually harassing other employees. Connors was found liable for creating a hostile work environment and was hit with more than $1 million in penalties.
- Wait to handle it in court. Even a claim that you feel may be baseless can take up a significant amount of time and money. A sexual harassment claim against one Burger King franchisee went on for 14 years before it was settled. The lesson here: Try to resolve complaints sooner rather than later.
- Wrongfully discipline employees. Although a vigorous response to sexual harassment claims is a must, don't go overboard by rushing to judgement and disciplining employees who may have done nothing wrong. Improper employee discipline actions may lead to a entirely different, but no less problematic, legal situation.
- Avoid contacting an attorney. Many business owners, whether due to optimism or frugality, hesitate to contact an attorney when a sexual harassment complaint arises. But keep in mind that many employment law attorneys focus exclusively workplace issues and may be able to help to avoid a lawsuit or mitigate any potential liability before it's too late.
What you do following a sexual harassment complaint can help you avoid a drawn-out lawsuit or help you win your case if it does end up in court. However, the best defense is a good offense. Doing your best to prevent sexual harassment in the first place will save you a ton of trouble down the line.
If you or an employee have been accused of sexual harassment, you should contact an experienced employment law attorney immediately.
Editor's Note, June 14, 2016: This post was first published in June 2014. It has since been updated.
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