Illinois case highlights importance of taking harassment complaints seriously

A recent case from Illinois demonstrates just how critical it is for employers to conduct a legitimate investigation of all complaints of sexual harassment in the workplace.

In that case, Maria Gracia, a female assembly line supervisor at electronics manufacturing services provider Sigma Tron, complained to human resources that her manager had been sending her graphic email photos, calling her late at night, repeatedly asking her on dates and sending her unwanted text messages. She repeatedly turned him down, but one day, after receiving yet another “No,” the manager allegedly suspended her for two days, claiming it was for excessive tardiness.

The HR rep brought Gracia to meet with a company vice president, who, instead of ordering a thorough investigation of the complaints, invited the alleged harasser and retaliator into the meeting to help “sort things out.” After hearing both “sides of the story,” the HR rep and the VP told Gracia to shake hands with the manager and “work together” with him to “solve their disputes.”

Rankled by the experience, Garcia filed a sexual harassment charge against the company with the EEOC.  Within a few weeks, the company put itself into hotter water by firing her over a disputed “performance issue.”

The case ultimately went to trial and a jury awarded Gracia substantial damages, which were upheld on appeal.

If you’re looking for a lesson from this, it’s this: Don’t try to solve potentially serious complaints by ordering employees to work out their differences and get along better. Conduct an immediate, thorough investigation and, if the investigation reveals potential violations, take strong steps to address them, including disciplinary measures and additional training. After all, if your kid was being bullied at school, you wouldn’t be OK with the principal telling him to shake hands with the bully and “get along better.” Your employees are entitled to expect the same protection from you in the workplace.