HR Management & Compliance

Sexual Harassment Lawsuits: New Case Shows How To Handle Harassment Complaints The Right Way

A sexual harassment complaint can lead to big legal bills and a massive jury verdict. But responding correctly at the start can dramatically reduce your risks. That was the experience of one employer who scrupulously handled a disgruntled saleswoman’s sexual harassment complaint, and was able to get her lawsuit dismissed without a trial.

Employee Unhappy With Appraisal; Charges Harassment

Bernadine Casenas was a sales representative for three years at Fujisawa, an Orange County pharmaceutical manufacturer. Her performance appraisal rated her “highly commendable” (a notch below the highest ranking of “outstanding”), and she was given a 7% merit increase. The review was prepared by her supervisor, Jeff Brown, several other managers and human resource manager Barbara Sheiman.

Casenas wrote to Sheiman complaining that the appraisal didn’t list all her accomplishments and she felt she deserved an 8% raise. Sheiman had the regional sales director review the appraisal. He made minor changes but told Casenas they wouldn’t boost her overall rating or merit increase.

Casenas, still unhappy, wrote again to Sheiman. This time she claimed supervisor Brown had sexually harassed her and her rejection of his advances contributed to the unfair review. Casenas also revealed she had lodged a complaint with the Equal Employ- ment Opportunity Commission (EEOC).

Employer Launches Intensive Investigation

Sheiman immediately investigated, interviewing Brown, current and former sales representatives who reported to him, and others. Also, Sheiman asked upper management, including Fujisawa’s president, to review Casenas’ performance evaluation.

They concluded the appraisal was accurate. However, the investigation also showed that Brown had exhibited poor judgment in his dealings with Casenas, including repeatedly discussing a penile implant product, making sexual jokes and inappropriately touching her.

Brown, although no longer Casenas’ supervisor, received a written warning that further harassment would be grounds for immediate termination. He was also admonished to stay away from her. Casenas was informed that Brown had received the warning.

400+ pages of state-specific, easy-read reference materials at your fingertips—fully updated! Check out the Guide to Employment Law for California Employers and get up to speed on everything you need to know.

Employee Raises More Complaints

Casenas then wrote another letter repeating her concerns about Brown, but also complaining that she was passed over for a management opening because she made the EEOC complaint. Her new supervisor and the regional sales director tried several times to set up a face-to-face meeting with her to discuss these charges. Casenas initially refused, insisting on communicating only in writing, but eventually she agreed to meet.

The meeting lasted five hours, and the managers indicated they supported her goal of moving up in the organization. Plus, to make her more comfortable, they agreed to pay for her to attend a company training program at a location where Brown wouldn’t be present.

Worker Says She’s Forced To Quit, Then Heads To Court

Despite Fujisawa’s efforts to investigate and resolve the problems, a few weeks later Casenas submitted her resignation, stating she obviously would never become a manager because she had complained about sexual harassment. The regional sales director wrote back that the company had tried to insulate her from Brown and supported her goals, but hadn’t considered her a management candidate before the meeting because it thought she was interested in a different career path. He said Fujisawa in no way wished her to leave the company.

Casenas sued, claiming the company had “constructively” fired her. She charged she was forced to resign because the supervisors, in retaliation for her complaints, had made her working conditions intolerable. Fuji- sawa argued there was no evidence management did anything to retaliate against her for the sexual harassment complaint.

Court Backs Employer

The Court of Appeal sided with Fujisawa and took the unusual step of praising the employer for a “textbook example of how to respond appropriately to an employee’s harassment complaint.” The court said it did not know what more Fujisawa could have done to accommodate Casenas.

According to the court, the company promptly and extensively responded to Casenas’ concerns. The supervisors thoroughly reviewed her performance appraisal, discussed it with her and investigated the harassment charges. They ultimately gave Brown a “devastating” written reprimand and took special care to ensure Casenas wouldn’t have contact with him. What’s more, no one indicated her job was in jeopardy or that she could not advance. The court dismissed her lawsuit, concluding no reasonable person could believe she had been forced out of the company.

The Right Way To Handle Harassment Complaints

This case provides valuable insight into how to properly respond to harassment complaints. Here is a 4-point checklist:

  1. Route complaints to top officials. Designate a specific high-level person to act on a harassment complaint, as Fujisawa did. This helps prevent mishandling and assures proper attention to the problem especially if, as in this case, the alleged harasser is a supervisor.
  2. Promptly investigate. Talk to the complainant and the person accused. Interview all other witnesses who could shed light on the allegations. Plus, keep detailed notes of their statements and your actions.
  3. Stop the harassment. If the complaint is valid, take prompt measures to end the harassment. This could include warning, disciplining or terminating the harasser. Take steps even if the harassment has already ceased. For example, Fujisawa took action even though Casenas was working with a new supervisor. If you can’t substantiate the complaint or the conduct wasn’t severe enough to warrant discipline, you should still issue a stern written statement that harassment won’t be tolerated.
  4. Don’t punish the victim. If appropriate, separate the harasser from the victim or limit their contact as Fujisawa did. But don’t do anything that could be considered retaliatory toward the victim such as changing work duties or reassigning her to a less desirable position.