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Employers Are Liable for Anonymous Harassers

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By Christopher Coble, Esq. on July 22, 2015 10:04 AM

An employee is claiming harassment at work. The problem is that the employee doesn't know the identity of the harasser. How can you, the employer, resolve the harassment issue if you don't even know who to blame?

Can you just ignore harassment when the harasser is anonymous?

Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc.

In the case of Pryor v. United Air Lines, Inc., an African-American flight attendant was being terrorized by an anonymous harasser who left notes depicting a lynching captioned with offensive language. The note also encouraged hunting and killing of African-Americans.

Naturally, the flight attendant reported the harassment to her supervisor. However, since they did not know who the harasser was, the supervisor did not follow procedures and protocol set out in the company's Harassment and Discrimination Policy. No remedial steps were taken to investigate and prevent future harassment. When the employee reported the incident to the police, and the police wanted to investigate, United's supervisors were uncooperative.

United even closed its investigation into the incident without notifying the employee. Not surprisingly, the harassment continued and even spread to other employees.

The employee filed a complaint for hostile work environment in violation of Title VII and Section 1981 of the Civil Rights Act.

The Fourth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that, even if the anonymous harasser can never be found, an employer has a duty to take prompt and diligent actions reasonably calculated to end the harassment.

Preventing Harassment

As an employer and a business, you may not want to waste time, money, and effort on non-business issues such as workplace harassment. However, saving a few dollars by skimping on prevention could cost you thousands more later on when an employee sues your company for harassment and hostile work environment. Simple steps to help remedy the situation include:

  • Promptly and diligently investigate all reports of harassment.
  • Follow protocol set out in your company's Harassment and Discrimination Policy.
  • If you don't already have such a policy, create one.
  • Put up surveillance cameras for added security.
  • Keep employees notified of what your investigation found and what steps you took to prevent future harassment.
  • Report threats to police if necessary.

If you need help dealing with harassment at your company, or if you are being sued for hostile work environment, consult an experienced business attorney for help.

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