Vigilance key to combatting sexual harassment

It is old news that sexual harassment is illegal. In times past, many a lawsuit was based on outrageous, sexually-oriented conduct belittling women. Happily, the number of such cases has been reduced significantly, and the offending conduct these days is typically more subtle. But a recent case suggests a refresher is in order.

The female plaintiff was employed as a cashier at the Marriott Conference Center in Norman, Okla. She was terminated allegedly due to three written reprimands within a 12-month period. One was for unprofessional conduct in front of a guest; another for raising her voice at a co-worker; the third for refusing to clean her drink station. Plaintiff contended that the reprimands were retaliation for her complaining about sexual harassment by her coworkers and supervisors.

To prove a hostile work environment, plaintiff must establish that sexually charged conduct was sufficiently severe or pervasive such that it created an abusive environment. Plaintiff reported that her supervisor required her to give him hugs, said they would “enjoy each other,” told her they should “hook up,” and called her a “cougar” (a slang term for an older woman who seeks sexual relations with a much younger man). The plaintiff objected to these actions directly to the offending supervisor. The conduct did not abate.

In this case, the plaintiff maintains they were targeted unfairly by a superior for refusing sexual advances.

Another of plaintiff’s supervisors asked if she had a boyfriend, asked if she “missed orgasms because she was single,” told her she needed a “black boyfriend” because they “have big [genitalia],” asked if plaintiff’s “breasts were real,” commented on her figure, called her “sexy,” and asked her for “sexy pictures.” Other co-workers called plaintiff filthy, derogatory names. Plaintiff complained to a supervisor in the HR department. He told her to “get over it” and took no corrective action. Also in response, he issued the referenced written reprimands.

The hotel claimed the undisputed facts were not sufficient to establish discrimination and asked the court to dismiss the case. The judge disagreed and refused. The case either will proceed to trial or the parties will settle.

Sexual comments and sexually charged conduct have no place in the workplace. Training of all levels of workers should be ongoing. Employers must stay vigilant. And if an employee reports inappropriate behavior is occurring, make a prompt and thorough investigation and administer appropriate disciplinary and corrective measures.

Karen Morris is a lawyer, municipal judge and distinguished professor at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., where she teaches hospitality law. Contact her at [email protected].