Thursday, March 30, 2023

HR Dept’s Quick Response to Harassment Precluded Liability, 7th Cir. Says

HR Dept’s Quick Response to Harassment Precluded Liability, 7th Cir. Says

News brief:

  • An employer is not liable for harassment under the Americans with Disabilities Act because it took prompt action when a worker complained of a “hostile work environment” due to her diabetes, the 7th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals said, upholding the decision of a district court (Warren-Higgins v. Indiana University Health, Inc., et al, No. 19-cv-02083 (7th Cir. Oct. 7, 2021)).
  • The worker alleged that her supervisor at the patient call center where they worked harassed her with demeaning comments related to her diabetes. The supervisor also “joked about her allergy to a diabetes medication, rummaged through [the worker’s] lunch, and mocked [the worker’s] food choices and work ethic to co-workers,” according to the worker. The worker formally complained to the human resources department and within a week, the department interviewed both workers as well as other employees about the behavior. The harassing behavior stopped after these interviews, the worker said.
  • The 7th Circuit upheld the district court’s decision to dismiss the case on summary judgment as requested by the employer. In their statement, the judges noted that “an employer is not liable for a supervisor’s creation of a hostile work environment if the employer ‘exercised reasonable care to prevent and promptly correct any harassing behavior’ once notified.”

This case provides a good example of how employers can reduce or eliminate liability to harassment and other claims simply by being responsive. The company’s prompt response to and resolution of the complaint were central to the case’s dismissal.

As HR Dive has previously reported, HR departments are generally empowered to handle complaints internally through investigations. Unlike lawyers, HR professionals are not subject to higher-order concerns like “hearsay, leading and statutes of limitations” — they simply need to apply good-faith interpretations and come to well-reasoned conclusions to avoid liability, a source said.

Some initial surveys have found that rather than easing harassment-related issues, the pandemic and shift to remote work may well have increased them due to workers’ perception of digital privacy. Last year, HR Dive spoke to sources about how to conduct a proper HR investigation remotely. They suggested obtaining a written and signed complaint and conducting witness interviews via video conferencing, for example.

Responding to complaints is about more than avoiding legal liability; not dealing with workers’ issues can lead to HR avoidance and the fostering of a toxic work environment, which can create far bigger issues down the road.