There’s a sex harassment case playing out in federal court in New York – Marchuk v. Faruqi & Faruqi LLP – that’s been getting a lot of attention. The allegations involve a law firm partner forcing himself on an associate after a holiday party. Law360 (subscription) provides daily updates. While there are enough sordid details to fill 10 blog posts, I want to focus on a less salacious issue that arose last week.
Plaintiff is arguing – as harassment plaintiffs invariably do – that the employer didn’t take its obligation to provide a harassment-free workplace seriously. As an example, one of the founders would jokingly exclaim “Handbook!” when someone told a dirty joke. Based on this, the plaintiffs’ attorneys argue that “the handbook at the firm was a joke” and people knew they could violate the harassment policy without consequence.
I can certainly imagine situations where reminding employees of a policy is an effective response to off-color comments. But if that doesn’t get the message across, employers need to be prepared to do more. How managers react to violations can be critical evidence for a jury in determining whether, despite handbook language to the contrary, bad behavior is implicitly tolerated.
- Harassment litigation is less about what the harasser did than about what the company did. When you see a large verdict against an employer, it’s because the plaintiff was able to convince a jury the company didn’t take the issues seriously.
- Having updated policies in place is an important first step. But if managers disregard the policies (by word or deed), the policies won’t do you much good. What your managers say (and how they act) is going to carry more weight than what the policies say. Harassment training is a good way to inform managers what you expect from them.