Employers strive to foster harassment-free work environments. Employers who succeed in doing so have something in common: they are proactive rather than reactive. Thus, they have personnel policies to help prevent workplace harassment claims. Equally as important, the employers train their employees on the anti-harassment policies and procedures. After all, how good is a policy if the employers do not know it exists or how it applies to him/her?

A recent ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals, Patton v. Jacobs Engineering Group, Inc., shows just how important workplace reporting policies are. 

Timothy Patton, an employee of Jacobs Engineering Group, brought claims of hostile work environment against his employer. Patton, who has an obvious stutter, claimed his coworkers called him names and mocked his speech. The alleged harassment triggered his anxiety, resulting in a panic attack that caused a car accident. When Patton brought a suit against his employer, however, the district court dismissed his claim. The court found that Patton failed to report internally complaints about the harassment required by the employee handbook. As the court noted, employers are liable for harassment "only if they knew or should have known of harassment and failed to take prompt remedial action."

The Fifth Court ruling serves as an important reminder to both employers and employees. Employers must update their anti-harassment policies, and employees must take advantage of their workplace protections. Internal reporting systems vary by employer, so employees must familiarize themselves with their employer's processes. Employers should have an effective and clear internal reporting process. It should be outlined in the employee handbook, with clear examples of what behavior constitutes harassment and what steps an employee should take if he/she experiences harassment. 

Employers should note that harassment suits cost companies millions in lawsuits and lost productivity each year. An employer may be legally responsible for harassment by a supervisor that results in a significant change in employment status, and they may also be liable if they did not take reasonable steps to prevent or correct an incident of harassment. With this Fifth Circuit decision, employees should be reminded that they, too, have a responsibility to comply with company policies if they wish to seek legal action against an employer. If an employee doesn't feel comfortable reporting to his/her direct supervisor, he/she should report to the next person designated.

Anti-harassment policies are an invaluable tool for employers striving to foster harassment-free workplaces and can help protect both employers and employees. With questions about your company's internal reporting system, contact a Sioux Falls attorney, Omaha lawyer, or Sioux City attorney today!


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