March 16, 2018

What Can Employers Learn from the University of Minnesota’s Handling of the Norwood Teague Sexual Harassment Allegations?

Last month, Norwood Teague resigned as the University of Minnesota Athletic Director following reports that he had sexually harassed two women.  While this incident certainly is an embarrassment to the University, it is a reminder that sexual harassment remains a problem in today’s society.  What can employers do to help prevent sexual harassment in their workplaces?  Several Things:

1.  Have an anti-discrimination and harassment policy that explains prohibited conduct.  The University had such a policy, but too many companies, particularly small and mid-sized companies don’t.  Have a policy and follow it!

2.  Have a clear and effective complaint promise.  Make it easy for someone to bring a complaint.  Do not require that an alleged victim first discuss the issue with the alleged harasser before going to a higher authority in the organization.  Likewise, it is best to require that complaints be brought to an individual higher in the organization than a front line supervisor.  Individuals to whom a complaint can be brought should be identified (and, if possible, should include both men and women), and employees should be given the names of more than one such person to whom a complaint can be brought.

3.  Promise and ensure no retaliation.  The best policy in the world is worthless if employees fear losing their job if they make a complaint.  Ensure that employees are not subjected to retaliation for raising a good faith complaint.

4.  Conduct a prompt, thorough, and impartial investigation.  Depending upon the allegations, an investigation may take minutes or may take a significantly longer period of time.  The key is that the investigator be someone who is impartial and who is able to conduct a thorough investigation.  Because of the need for an investigation, an employer should not promise an alleged victim or other witnesses complete and absolute confidentiality.  That said, an employer should not make any unnecessary disclosures of allegations or other information surrounding an investigation.

5.  Take prompt and appropriate disciplinary action if wrongful conduct occurred.  Even if an investigation finds no legal violation but does find improper behavior, most employers will want to take disciplinary action against the person who engaged in the improper behavior.

6.  Train managers and supervisors.  Managers and supervisors need to be trained in your company’s policy.  Beyond that, they need to know what to do if they receive a complaint or, even in the absence of a complaint, become aware of potential harassment or discrimination.  Managers and supervisors cannot bury their heads in the sand or look the other way.  If they see or hear of possible discrimination or harassment, they must act.  One of the issues the University currently appears to be investigating is whether others were aware of Mr. Teague’s alleged conduct but failed to take any action.

7.  Train employees.  Employees need to be trained regarding an employer’s anti-discrimination and harassment policy.  It is not enough simply to include such a policy in an employee handbook or to distribute such a policy to new hires.  Rather, the policy should be discussed with employees and employees should be trained to understand what constitutes unlawful harassment, that the employer prohibits such conduct, and what to do if they believe they are being subjected to, or are otherwise aware of, such conduct.

Practice Pointer:  The situation at the University of Minnesota is a reminder that sexual harassment remains an issue in the workplace.  Employers should review their anti-harassment and discrimination policies and practices to ensure that their workplaces remain positive work environments, free of unlawful harassment and discrimination.