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Sexual harassment.

A federal appellate court has ruled that an employee could pursue a sexual harassment claim against her employer, in part because the company's sexual harassment prevention policy was confusing.

Lesley Gentry was hired as a temporary employee at Export Packing Company in Moline, Illinois, in October 1997. By January 1998, she had been promoted to the position of administrative assistant to technical services. Gentry shared an office with her direct supervisor, Leo Broughton.

When Gentry was promoted, Broughton began sexually harassing her. Broughton frequently hugged, rubbed, kissed, and patted Gentry. Among other incidents, Broughton referred to Gentry as his "sex-retary" and told her that her clothes would look better on the floor. He also gave her a calendar depicting cartoon drawings of different sexual positions and told her to "pick out a couple of her favorites."

Gentry resisted Broughton's advances and spoke with Benefits Coordinator Vicki Hanske about the incidents on two different occasions. When no action was taken, Gentry resigned in April 1998. She then filed a sexual harassment lawsuit against Export Packing.

A jury found in favor of Gentry and awarded her $25,000 in compensation. Export appealed the decision.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit upheld the lower court's decision. In reviewing the case, the court noted that in a case where the plaintiff suffered no adverse employment action, such as discharge or demotion, as a result of the harassment, a company may mount a successful defense. The company can defend against a sexual harassment claim by proving that it had exercised reasonable care to prevent sexual harassment and that the plaintiff had unreasonably failed to take advantage of the company's prevention program. The court ruled that in this case, the company had failed to prove these points.

The company did have a sexual harassment prevention policy, which stated that an employee should report harassment to his or her "immediate supervisor, division manager, or human resource representative, whichever the employee feels is appropriate under the circumstances." However, during the period that Gentry was employed, the company did not have a human resource representative because she was on maternity leave. No one in management ever announced who was filling this position during the employee's absence.

After the human resource representative went on leave, two employees remained in the human resource department: Director John Bauersfeld and Haske. Bauersfeld testified at trial that it would only have been proper to report sexual harassment claims to him. Other management representatives testified that it would also have been appropriate to report sexual harassment to Haske, as Gentry did.

The court ruled that this lack of consensus and the fact that the company never informed employees of changes in the human resource department "suggests that Export appears not to have taken the necessary steps to fully and effectively implement its sexual harassment policy."

The court also determined that Gentry took reasonable steps to avail herself of Export's sexual harassment policy. After Gentry reported Broughton's inappropriate behavior to Haske, no action was taken by the company. According to Haske's testimony, this was because Gentry had not actually used the words "sexual harassment" in her complaint. Though Gentry did tell Haske that Broughton's touching and hugging made her uncomfortable and that his comments were objectionable, Haske maintained that she did not know she was supposed to interpret the conversation as a sexual harassment complaint.

The court ruled that this argument was insufficient to overturn the jury verdict. The court ruled that there is no legal mandate to use the term sexual harassment in reporting workplace misconduct. In the written opinion of the case, the court noted that: "Gentry's comments about touching and hugging in the workplace should have raised suspicions. When an employee complains about behavior such as the kind described in this case, this should be sufficient to alert an employer about a potential harasser." (Gentry v. Export Packaging Co., U.S. Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, No. 00-2367, 2001)
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Author:ANDERSON, TERESA
Publication:Security Management
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1U3IL
Date:Apr 1, 2001
Words:662
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