When the employer’s harassment policy is ineffective

Most employers, especially larger companies include detailed provisions on their anti-harassment at workplace policy. These policies generally serve several purposes. First, the employers are required to implement various harassment training and prevention procedures at workplace. Secondly, these policies are designed to provide an opportunity for employee to address and eliminate harassment at workplace. Lastly, and not less importantly, existence of those policies in the employee handbook is commonly used as a strong defense against sexual harassment, racial harassment and other hostile work environment claims, if the employee claims that he/she was harassed but failed to use the grievance procedures as provided by the employer’s harassment policy.

However, the anti-harassment policies and the grievance procedures that the employee who believe to be harassed are encouraged to follow often have a fundamental flaw that entire defeats their use – many harassment manuals provide that the employee who feels that he/she is harassed should complain to his/her immediate supervisor or manager. The problem is that the immediate supervisor is often the source of harassment. If that’s the case, that kind of policy will neither provide effective help to the employee, as it goes without saying that complaining to the source of harassment about his own harassment would be pointless.

Moreover, the employee’s failure to use anti-harassment grievance procedures of the company in this case will likely not serve as a valid defense to the employer. As the United States Supreme Court stated in a leading case on harassment: “the employer’s grievance procedure apparently required an employee to complain first to her supervisor. Since in this case the supervisor was the alleged perpetrator, it is not altogether surprising that the victim of the harassment failed to invoke the procedure and report her grievance to him. The employer’s argument that the harassed employee’s failure should insulate it from liability might have been substantially stronger if its procedures were better calculated to encourage victims of harassment to come forward…” Meritor Savings Bank, FSB v. Vinson.

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