The increased attention to sexual harassment in the work place is reflected in the increasing number of sexual harassment suits filed by the United States Equal Employment Opportunity Commission-a federal agency whose responsibilities include enforcing federal nondiscrimination laws.

This trend magnifies the need for employers to be aware of an opinion by a judge of the United States District Court of the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, holding that an employer may be liable for the sexual harassment of one of its employees by a nonemployee.    

In this case, Hewett v. BS Transportation of Illinois, LLC, et al., the Court considered various claims by an employee, Hewitt, including a claim of sexual harassment, against his employer, BS Transportation.

Specifically, Hewitt alleged that he was a freight driver for BS Transportation whose job responsibilities included weekly loading of oil at a Sunoco refinery.

According to the allegations in Hewitt’s complaint:


During the course of Hewitt’s employment, a Sunoco employee sexually harassed Hewitt, first with sexual
comments and hand gestures and then after Hewitt asked the employee to stop, with more aggressive behavior including
physical contact. Hewitt made complaints to the Sunoco employee’s supervisor, as well as Hewitt’s supervisor at BS
Transportation who was also the owner of BS Transportation. Although Hewitt’s supervisor indicated he would
“handle the matter” with the Sunoco employee, the supervisor did not investigate the complaint nor did the Sunoco
employee’s supervisor.  After a pause in his harassment of Hewitt, Sunoco’s employee again engaged in sexual
harassment of Hewitt, who again complained to Hewitt’s supervisor. Hewitt’s supervisor did not notify Sunoco of
these latest actions by the Sunoco employee. Shortly after the resumption of the harassment, Hewitt’s employment
with BS Transportation ended.


As a result of the alleged harassment described above, Hewitt filed suit in federal court alleging, among other claims, sexual discrimination by BS Transportation in violation of Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. (The Court dismissed claims against Sunoco and its employee). While dismissing certain claims against BS Transportation and its supervisor, the Court did permit the sex discrimination claim to proceed-deeming it a claim of hostile work environment. (The Court in allowing the case to proceed did not make any factual findings regarding Hewitt’s allegation. Rather the Court needed to decide at this stage whether Hewitt stated a plausible claim against his employer).

The Court noted that the claim in this case was not like most claims of employment discrimination, where the offending conduct is alleged to have been committed by an employee of the employer. This case instead involved a nonemployee.  The Court, however, allowed  the case to proceed  based on the allegations that a management -level  employee  (Hewitt’s supervisor)of BS Transportation was aware of the harassment complaints and failed to investigate or take appropriate action and that BS Transportation failed to notify Sunoco when Sunoco’s employee allegedly resumed harassment of Hewitt.

Pointing to decisions of other courts, the Court in this case held that an employer may be liable for employment discrimination  “where the employer (or its agents or supervisory employees) knows or should have known of the conduct and fails to take immediate and appropriate action”(quoting Johnson-Harris v. AmQuip Cranes Rental ,LLC).  The Court ruled that Hewitt had alleged sufficient facts to let the matter go forward. The Court also found that Hewitt stated a claim (yet to be proven) that BS Transportation’s supervisory employee had aided or abetted an unlawful discriminatory practice under the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act.

The obvious takeaway from this decision is that an employer must have procedures in place to immediately and thoroughly investigate claims of workplace discrimination of any type.  These procedures, of course, go along with anti-discrimination policies and procedures that may be used by an employee to file a complaint with the employer.

The less obvious lesson from this case is that an employer could be found liable for the unlawful conduct of a nonemployee if it fails to take appropriate action, including a thorough investigation. The reasoning of this case can easily be applied to other nonemployees who come into contact with an employer’s employees- vendors, outside maintenance personnel, salespeople, customers and so on. An employer must be alert as to any such claim that could give rise to a lawsuit.

Published in AMM Blog
Wednesday, 30 May 2018 16:38

A Closer Look at Harassment Training

I had the pleasure of revisitng the issue of training to avoid or address harassment and discrimination in the workplace at the Lower Bucks Chamber of Commerce ECONference 2018 on May 23, 2018.  The questions from participants reminded me that training is a valuable tool not only for risk prevention, but also to improve workplace culture.     

Training has become a “check the box” activity:  the employer gets to say that it provided training, in the event of a claim.  The employees are required to attend in order to keep their jobs, and so they attend and zone out.  Employer and employees are going through the motions.  The lawyers told them to train, so the employer is training.  

Here’s what I’ve learned:  the serious offenders, those who engage in serial harassment, inappropriate relationships or even assault, are going to engage in that behavior no matter what training you provide.  An employee who lacks the insight to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable (everywhere, really) will not have an epiphany during mandatory employee training.  One-on-one training often helps in these situations, but not always, and not fundamentally (that is, the employee will know what to do to stay employed, but will not really care that the behavior was inappropriate).

Employers should provide training – it is good risk management for certain employers.  But, perhaps it should be a more sincere activity on both sides:  employers should consider more interactive training, smaller groups and individualized training for departments.  Employers should engage in self-evaluation of workplace culture prior to planning the training.  

Further, if the goal is prevention of harassment, hostile work environment claims or other unacceptable workplace behaviors, generalized training is not always the answer.  Instead, employers should remember that culture comes from the top.  If officers, supervisors and managers maintain professionalism, it sets the tone.  It might be valuable to warn and provide one-on-one training to managers who do not demonstrate professional behavior, but in the end, appropriate workplace behavior should be a qualification for any leadership role.  

No lawyer will ever advise an employer not to provide training, but perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about what training looks like for specific employees.  Avoiding litigation cannot be the only goal, or the training will never work.  I frequently work with employers to come up with meaningful training plans that comply with the law, and are appropriate for their business.

    

  

Published in AMM Blog
Thursday, 16 November 2017 20:15

Reevaluating Harassment Training

A recent article from NPR entitled “Trainers, Lawyers Say Sexual Harrassment Training Fails” got me thinking about employee training programs. Specifically, every employment lawyer will advise employers to provide training for employees regarding harassment and discrimination.  I would like to say that employers follow this advice in order to ensure a professional and safe workplace, but the truth is that employers provide training mostly because their lawyers advise them that training will bolster a defense in the event of a harassment claim.   This cynical approach to employee training is, I think, the reason why the experts cited in the article concluded that training is not working.  
 
Training is a “check the box” activity:  the employer gets to say that it provided training, in the event of a claim.  The employees are required to attend in order to keep their jobs, and so they attend and zone out.  The article accuses employees of going through the motions, but employers probably are too.  The lawyers told them to train, so the employer is training. 

Here’s what I’ve learned:  the serious offenders, those who engage in serial harassment, inappropriate relationships or even assault, are going to engage in that behavior no matter what training you provide.  An employee who lacks the insight to know that certain behaviors are unacceptable (everywhere, really) will not have an epiphany during mandatory employee training.  One-on-one training often helps in these situations, but not always, and not fundamentally (that is, the employee will know what to do to stay employed, but will not really care that the behavior was inappropriate).

Having said that, I want to be clear, employers should provide training – it is good risk management for certain employers.  But, perhaps it should be a more sincere activity on both sides:  employers should consider more interactive training, smaller groups and individualized training for departments.  They should also engage in a healthy evaluation of their workplace culture prior to planning the training. 

Further, if the goal is prevention of harassment, hostile work environment claims or other unacceptable workplace behaviors, training is not always the answer.  Instead, employers should remember that culture comes from the top.  If officers, supervisors and managers maintain professionalism, it sets the tone.  It might be valuable to warn and provide one-on-one training to managers who do not demonstrate professional behavior, but in the end, appropriate workplace behavior should be a qualification for any leadership role. 

No lawyer will ever advise an employer not to provide training, but perhaps it is time to be more thoughtful about what training looks like for specific employers.  Avoiding litigation cannot be the only goal, or the training will never work.  We can work with employers to come up with a training plan that complies with the law, and is appropriate for their business.

 

Published in AMM Blog

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