‘Do-nothing’ manager costs firm big money
Front-line managers and supervisors need to respond quickly and decisively to complaints involving sexual harassment.
Taking such complaints lightly – or worse, blaming the victim and retaliating against her – can get everyone in trouble.
A recent case illustrates how a manager more sensitive to such powderkeg issues could have prevented a drawn-out legal battle.
Facts of the case
Chances are when Terri Wallace started working at the Dollar Rent-a-Car station in Kansas City International Airport, she probably felt good about her future.
But things took an ugly turn when her immediate supervisor, Brad Kjar, started making inappropriate comments, and showed the staff obscene Popeye cartoons on his computer screen.
Terri reported the matter to HR, and was told that, if she was uncomfortable, she could go over Kjar’s head to his supervisor.
That’s when things went from bad to worse. Kjar’s boss was upset that Wallace had come to him, rather than deal upfront about it with Kjar. He also felt her complaint would “muzzle” joking around that he thought “should happen openly and freely” but likely would no longer occur.
Rather than act to investigate the complaint or discipline Kjar in any way, his boss decided to terminate Ms. Wallace, and did so 28 days after she complained.
During the meeting in which she was fired, Terri was told that the decision had been made based on a downturn in business after Sept. 11, 2001 and that, as she was the least senior person at the station, she was being let go.
Transfer denied as well
Terri asked for a lateral transfer to an an open position in another city, but this request was denied, based on a “written warning” in her personnel file. Her bosses said such a warning meant she did not qualify for a transfer.
Terri later sued for retaliatory discharge. And, after lengthy legal wrangling, an appeals court ruled that a jury should decide if she was retaliated against for making a sexual harassment complaint. That often translates into a hefty settlement, to avoid a jury trial.
In making its decision, the court reviewed evidence that:
- Terri was the only person in the entire Midwest region who was terminated based on a post-9/11 economic business downturn.
- Both supervisors claimed to have lost their supporting documentation concerning the timing of her dismissal due to “mysterious” computer crashes.
- Other employees had been transferred around the company despite having written or verbal warnings on file, so that policy was inconsistently applied.
The court ruled that these factors cast plenty of doubt on the “legitimate business reasons” for the termination.
Some of the management miscues in this case are obvious. But here’s the real takeaway:
- If someone comes to you with a harassment complaint, pay attention and respond quickly.
- Investigate quickly and impartially, involving HR early on in the process.
Avoid any action that could be construed as retaliation against the person complaining.
Cite: Wallace v. DTG Operations, Inc., No. 04-3345. 8th Cir, 3/29/06.
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