Strictly Business

Monday, Jan 06 2014 04:00 PM

ROBIN PAGGI: Employers' response to complaints is critical

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    Californian contributing columnist Robin Paggi.

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BY ROBIN PAGGI Contributing columnist

To paraphrase a popular saying, "stuff happens." As the following court case demonstrates, when stuff happens in the employment world, an employer's inept response to complaints about it can make life stuffier for said employer.

According to court documents at www.ca5.uscourts.gov, Tonia Royal was employed as an apartment complex leasing manager by CCC&R Tres Arboles, LLC, in Texas for four days in 2009.

During the first two days of her employment, two maintenance men also employed by the company visited Royal in her office at least 12 times each, sometimes alone and sometimes together. Each time, the men sniffed her in a sexually suggestive manner while either hovering over her as she sat at her desk or as she exited the bathroom. Royal told the men several times that she objected to their behavior, but to no avail. When she complained to her assistant manager about the sniffing and other objectionable behavior on her third day at the company, he responded by telling her to "let it slide" because "you know how men are like when they get out of prison." That's not a good response.

At a staff meeting held by her supervisor the next day for the employees to "get things off their chest," Royal again voiced her objection to being repeatedly sniffed by her co-workers. One of the maintenance men explained that he had a medical condition; the other said he "needed to get a release."

In a subsequent meeting with her supervisor and assistant manager that day, she complained about the behavior for a third time. That afternoon, her supervisor fired her, supplying no reason for the termination. That was bad response No. 2.

When Royal sued CCC&R for sexual harassment and retaliation against her for making a complaint, the employer said Royal was actually fired for swatting a fly harder than necessary and slamming a door. That's a stupid response.

The trial court dismissed Royal's suit because 1) the sniffing and other objectionable behavior was not offensive enough to be considered sexual harassment; and, 2) Royal failed to demonstrate that she was retaliated against. Royal appealed the retaliation ruling and the appellate court just decided that she could proceed with that claim.

So, stuff happens -- like employees behaving inappropriately. However, what matters greatly is how employers react when it happens. The appropriate response in matters like these is to take employees' complaints seriously, stop inappropriate behavior immediately, and refrain from punishing people for making complaints. Responding differently can lead to a lawsuit.

"Life is 10 percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you respond to it," said former football coach Lou Holtz. Keep these words in mind when determining how you will respond when stuff happens to you.

-- Robin Paggi is the training coordinator at Worklogic HR Legal Solutions. Reach her at rpaggi@worklogiclegal.com. These are her opinions, not necessarily those of The Californian.

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