HR Management & Compliance

Sexual Harassment: Harassment Escalates into Violence When Employer Delays Responding to Complaint; Would Your Managers Have Taken Action?

Trouble began between Betra Thompson and Tina Sheffield, two clerks for the Los Angeles County Department of Social Services, when Thompson allegedly called Sheffield at home, said she liked her “like a man likes a woman,” and asked for a date. Sheffield said no and hung up. The next day, a Friday, Sheffield told her supervisor, Rosemarie Fernandez, about the conversation and said she was scared. She said she wanted the department to tell Thompson to leave her alone. But Fernandez did nothing, instead waiting until her manager returned the following week. As we’ll explain, the supervisor’s delay in taking action turned into an expensive mistake for the employer.

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Unwanted Attention

Later that same Friday, Thompson repeatedly called Sheffield’s workstation, and in one call again asked Sheffield for a date. Sheffield complained to Fernandez three more times that day.

On Monday, Sheffield was attending an off-site class when she heard Thompson angrily call her name. Sheffield ran away, and later that day gave Thompson a letter stating she wasn’t attracted to women and wanted Thompson to leave her alone. Sheffield also left a copy of the letter in Fernandez’s inbox.

Tuesday, back at work, Sheffield tried to avoid running into Thompson. But when they saw each other in a hallway, Thompson allegedly made a fist and slammed it into her other palm. Sheffield reported this to Fernandez. That same day, Fernandez showed Sheffield’s letter to her supervisor, who directed Fernandez to ask Sheffield if she wanted them to do anything. Sheffield responded that she wanted them to tell Thompson to leave her alone. But the supervisors took no action.

Suitor Goes on the Attack

Thursday morning, as Thompson walked by Sheffield’s desk, she reportedly stated, “I’m going to get your A-S-S.” When Sheffield said to leave her alone, Thompson allegedly began hitting her. The police were called, and Thompson was immediately sent home. She was eventually terminated because of the attack.

Sheffield sued the county for sexual harassment under the California Fair Employment and Housing Act. The county argued Thompson’s behavior didn’t create a hostile work environment for Sheffield and that even if it did, the county wasn’t liable for Thompson’s conduct. A trial court agreed with the county and dismissed the case.

Employer’s Inaction Sends Case to Jury

But now a California Court of Appeal has reinstated Sheffield’s lawsuit. The court rejected the county’s argument that because Thompson’s misconduct occurred over a short period there wasn’t enough time for a hostile work environment to evolve. The court explained a jury could find that once there was a threat of violence—such as when Thompson, who was much bigger than Sheffield, slammed her fist into her palm—Sheffield’s employment conditions changed drastically and became hostile.

The court also ruled a jury could find the county liable because it didn’t take reasonable steps to prevent the harassment after learning of Thompson’s implied threats of violence. The court pointed out that Sheffield complained numerous times, but the county only acted after violence actually erupted.

Don’t Wait—Take Action

This case underscores that it is critical to immediately investigate harassment complaints and promptly take corrective action. Also, be sure your sexual harassment complaint procedures provide multiple avenues for employees to report problems. And train supervisors to immediately report all complaints to a high-level individual designated to handle and investigate harassment complaints.