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Hostile Work Environments: Your Company May Still Be More Accountable Than You Think

Posted on: July 24th, 2013 | Category: Employee Relations, Government Regulatory & Compliance Issues, HR Documentation, Human Resources, Our Blog

Co-worker harassment ruling by supreme courtEarlier this month, the Supreme Court issued a ruling that was seen as a win for employers, and rightly so. In its Vance vs. Ball State decision, the Supreme Court limited the ability of employees to sue for workplace discrimination under Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Court ruled that an employee is a “supervisor” for purposes of liability only if that person is empowered by the employer to take clear and concrete employment actions against the victim.

While it should go a long way in curtailing the number of lawsuits aimed at employers of co-workers who discriminate or harass fellow employees, the ruling still left many companies to wonder things like:

  • What will the courts see as proof that an employee was empowered by the organization to take employment action against the victim?
  • If an employee is harassing a co-worker, will the employer be considered liable if it was negligent in controlling the working conditions?
  • How can companies stay vigilant and show compliance?

Time will tell how the courts will view evidence for or against individual businesses, but there are ways in which employers can help safeguard their companies. In a great write up on this Supreme Court decision by our friends at Jackson Lewis LLP, had this to say as the business community moves forward:

Vance is a welcome ruling for employers. The Court’s focus on using documentation to evaluate “supervisor” status should impel employers to review the job descriptions of employees who assume quasi-leadership roles and to make sure they are accurate. Employers should continue with their efforts to prevent workplace harassment through training and aggressive investigation of alleged harassment. If Justice Alito is correct, the negligence model for hostile work environment claims will remain a potent strategy for establishing liability.

If your company hasn’t already, it may be time to develop a modern, integrated reporting system to manage complaints and have a clearly written code of conduct in your employee handbook. Training managers and employees about appropriate workplace behavior is also a wise idea. “The point is, you don’t want to allow a hostile work environment, or even the mistaken impression of one,” says Tina Hamilton, PHR, president and founder of hireVision. “It can leave you open to a lawsuit and damage your brand. Make an effort to instill a company culture that does not tolerate harassment or discrimination. It’s worth it on many levels, and it’s the right thing to do.”

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This article is part of our “Look at These Laws!” series, where we highlight some major legal and compliance issues facing businesses right now, and we strongly encourage you to check back weekly (or sign up for our new blog article email alerts) to keep yourself abreast of this important information.


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