Handling Harassment

When I started working at the age of 16, I remember my first job was at Sonic as a “fry guy” far from being a business attorney Tulsa. I was the one who put all the French fries, tater tots, mozzarella sticks, and anything else greasy into the fryer for some quick cooking. Before starting, I had to watch training videos that made me cringe given the poor quality acting. Most of these videos shared a common theme. A very attractive young woman would interact with her less-than-polite male co-workers. These males would usually make an inappropriate comment, say something related to sex, and/or touch this woman in a place she should not be touched. I was kind of surprised this needed to be addressed in the workplace, but I was only 16 and a bit naïve. Now that I’ve worked at many places for a living, and am a business attorney Tulsa I fully understand the need for those terrible videos.

Imagine you arrive at work to find your female employee who we will call Sally crying at her work station. You sincerely inquire as to what could possibly be wrong with sweet Sally. Sally bursts into tears and confesses that her male co-worker who we will call Steve has been harassing her in and outside of work. As you pull up a chair to get a clearer picture of the situation, Sally confesses that it started out with innocent teasing. Then innocent teasing quickly accelerated into full-blown harassment. Sally shows you text messages that look like they belong in an adult film. She pulls up her e-mail and the situation is similar. Finally, she tells you that Steve has been touching her in places no co-worker should be touching.

Completely bewildered, you start running the scenarios through your head. Do you call the police? Do you fire Steve on the spot? What do you do for Sally?

Many business owners have or will face issues similar to Sally and Steve. As the owner of the business, you have to take charge of the situation with a business attorney Tulsa. Here are a few steps I recommend you take to ensure that everyone’s rights are preserved.
First, immediately notify whoever is in charge of human resources about the situation. It may be perfectly appropriate that you are the human resources individual. If someone else handles these issues, notify him/her so they can take some immediate steps before contacting your business attorney Tulsa.

Second, preserve whatever evidence exists to substantiate the claims of either party. In the situation above, “evidence” would include the e-mails sent by Steve and the text messages. I as a business attorney Tulsa recommend printing hard copies in addition to preserving the information electronically. This way, if your computer gets fried or your data backup that was obliged to preserve all information fails, you have a paper copy. I am writing another piece on the concept of “spoliation,” which is the legal scenario wherein important evidence was either negligently preserved or intentionally destroyed.

Third, ensure that Steve and Sally are separated and not collaborating on any joint work projects. Given the intensity with which Sally reacted, it may be necessary to have Sally go home for the day. At a minimum, I would encourage Sally to step out and maybe make a coffee or tea run to try and calm herself. The last thing you want as a business owner is to have customers walk into your place of business and see employees sobbing.

Next, you need to notify your business attorney Tulsa. Since you are at breaking ground of a potential crisis, your counsel will want to get involved to direct the investigation. If this person is me, I will want to present to the business (assuming my schedule permits) in an unannounced fashion so no potential witness has time to “prepare” his or her statement.

After you notify your counsel, the business attorney Tulsa will direct a professional investigation into the matter. I would start with Sally and Steve. I would recommend Sally first since she was the one who complained. I would want to record the conversation with Sally’s permission. This type of transcript, although not under oath, could later be used for potential impeachment purposes if Sally changes her story. After I have an exhaustive statement from Sally, I would bring in Steve.

The important thing to keep in mind is you will want to remain objective throughout this process. In the case described above, it is pretty clear that Steve did some things he should not have done. If the waters are a little muddier, do not assume that either party is innocent or guilty. Your responsibility is not to be judge, jury, and execution. Your job is to notify your counsel so your counsel can investigate the matter and make a recommendation for you as to how to proceed. Your job is to also stay away from the situation as much as possible.

If I am your attorney, I will ask that you stay away from the interview room. My rationale behind this is some witnesses may not be as transparent as they would be if you are in the room. You have heard that when the cat is away then the mice will play? Well, I do not believe “mice” are as honest when the “cat” is staring directly at them.

Once I finish with Steve and Sally, I will then want to talk to any other employee with any first-hand knowledge of what happened. I am assuming that Steve and Sally will confess that other co-workers witnessed interactions or maybe even read some of the e-mails and text messages. These individuals have first-hand knowledge of the situation so I will want to speak with them.

Once those interviews are done, I will then want to speak to other individuals who have “heard” anything about this situation. These are the hearsay witnesses, but there may be important information to be learned from this investigation.

I as the business attorney Tulsa will then want to review any surveillance footage that exists on the premises. There may not be any. That is not a problem.

Once I complete this investigation, I will then prepare a thorough report to you regarding my findings and my recommendation for how to proceed. You may need to sanction an employee and put a written warning in his/her employee file. You might need to terminate an employee. You might need to terminate both employees.

Depending on the gravity of the situation, our potential remedies are vast as to how we address the situation. The goal is to be as fair as humanly possible while maintaining the integrity of the business.

A quick story. I once worked for a law firm as a law clerk while in undergraduate. This law firm handled similar issues to what I handle. I remember one of our clients called as they got a complaint from the state Equal Opportunity Employment Commission. A male minority employee filed a complaint saying one of his bosses commented on another boss as being nothing but a “racist piece of shit rat bastard.” Please excuse the language. Concerned, we spoke to management and advised we would make an unannounced visit to the business that afternoon to investigate. When we arrived, we spoke to both bosses mentioned in the complaint. It appeared from our interview that the man complained about was not telling the truth. We had to advise management of the situation. The problem was the manager who made the statement happened to be the business owner’s son. It was a sticky situation, but my then supervising business attorney Tulsa was able to handle the situation well and prevent further liability to the business by taking the steps identified above.

If you are suspicious that workplace harassment is occurring at your business and you’re not sure what to do, give this business attorney Tulsa a call. I can happily visit with you over the phone as the initial consultation is free of charge. Keep in mind that I will likely encourage you to hire an attorney at the conclusion of our conversation to avoid any legal pitfalls that may cross the path of even the most well-intentioned business owner.