Complaints of workplace harassment: the critical response

When employers fail to enforce workplace harassment policies in their employment handbook – or if they disregard the investigation procedures the handbook provides – those policies simply become weapons of mass destruction for the victim’s lawyer.

As “Plaintiff’s Exhibit A,” the neglected provisions provide a compelling road map for what the employer could have done to ward off the hostile work environment or prevent the sexual assault that devastated the harassment victim.

A case in point was decided two years ago by the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Managers at MPB Corp. of Keene fired Michelle Madeja only eight days after she complained about being sexually harassed by her trainer. According to the court’s opinion, the managers conducted their own inadequate investigation of Madeja’s harassment complaint without involving the human resources department, and they took no disciplinary action against the alleged harasser.

The only time they involved HR was when they decided to fire Madeja because of her poor performance and attitude. Somehow, her eight-day-old harassment complaint didn’t come up during that consultation.

Madeja sued for sexual harassment and retaliation. A jury returned a verdict in her favor. They awarded her more than $83,000 for lost wages and emotional distress. The punitive damages award, however, topped $350,000 – an award the court held was justified because there was evidence “that the defendant was not committed to enforcing its anti-discrimination policy.”

Million-dollar verdicts in employment cases are no longer unheard of in New Hampshire. Last year, a jury in Rockingham County awarded $1.13 million to a woman who claimed she had been sexually harassed, and her employer retaliated against her for complaining about it. A business owner in Hudson recently paid over $780,000 to settle the claims of five women who accused him of sexual harassment.

Such large verdicts encourage plaintiff’s lawyers to take more of these cases and work harder and smarter for their clients. Perhaps as the costs of sloppy employment practices go up, so will the value of lessons learned.

Here are some of the lessons we can take away from the decision in Madeja v. MPB Corp.:

• Follow your workplace harassment policies.

• Your policy should prohibit all forms of discriminatory harassment, including retaliatory harassment.

• Train your managers to respond appropriately to complaints of harassing behavior. If the policy provides that human resources will investigate all complaints, make sure human resources is informed of all complaints.

• Be on the lookout for – and respond promptly and reasonably to – signs of co-worker retaliation.

MPB learned the hard way that it’s not enough to have a policy. All New Hampshire employers should learn from MPB’s missteps to avoid such costly consequences.

Michael Pearson focuses on employment and commercial litigation at the law firm of McLane, Graf, Raulerson & Middleton, which has offices in Manchester, Concord and Portsmouth.

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