Disgruntled employees are the biggest legal risk there is for most small businesses. But a few simple, consistent practices can keep your employees happy, productive, and keep you out of court.
Disgruntled employees are the biggest legal risk there is for most small businesses. But a few simple, consistent practices can keep your employees happy, productive, and keep you out of court. A sexual harassment case decided in June by the United States Supreme Court is notable primarily because the case should never have been filed in the first place. But it wasn’t the employee who filed a frivolous lawsuit – it was the employer’s frivolous management that led to several missed opportunities to derail the problem before it reached court. After six years and hundreds of thousands of dollars spent, the case hasn’t even gone to trial yet. Skimping on management basics can hurt employers a lot.
What went wrong? The case, Pennsylvania State Police v. Suders, was filed by an employee who resigned after a series of incidents she felt made it impossible for her to continue working there. The real problem that led her to sue was that despite the fact that she had told her employer’s Equal Opportunity Officer twice that she was experiencing what she believed to be sexual harassment, the company never followed up on the concern because the employee never filed a formal complaint. Once in court, the company tried to hide behind the fact that since they had provided a complaint process that the employee never used, it was therefore not their fault that things got so bad for her she felt she had to leave.
Although employees do generally have a responsibility in sexual harassment cases to notify their employer of the problem, in this case the employer did in fact know she felt harassed. Your goal as an employer must be to prevent problems, which means if you know about potential harassment you should take some kind of action. Just as you wouldn’t wait for the designated safety officer to call for help if you knew your office was on fire, you shouldn’t wait for the employee to use the magic words before you investigate alleged sexual harassment.
Incorporate the following very simple steps into your supervisory practices, and you’ll greatly reduce your risk of having employees take legal action against you.
- Listen to every complaint, whether it is formally presented or not
- Follow up on every complaint in some fashion
- Be consistent in how you handle things
- Keep a written record of what you did
The employer may yet win the Suders case in court. But because it did not follow the four steps above, it really lost a long time ago, and no court verdict will change that now. Pay attention to the management basics, and you’ll save more time and money than you will ever know.
Pamela Parker is an attorney offering preventive legal services for employers, through retainer and training programs. She can be reached at (512)587-8182, or